Suga sets 2050 goal for Japan to be carbon neutral

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga making his debut policy speech in the Diet yesterday. Besides his environment pledges, he also discussed the need to revitalise a pandemic-hit economy. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO - Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga vowed on Monday (Oct 26) to build a carbon-neutral "green society" by 2050, marking a paradigm shift for the world's fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter.

The pledge will bring Japan in line with the European Union's 2050 goal, and also sets it a decade ahead of China's 2060 aim, which was announced last month.

While Mr Suga did not lay out a detailed road map to achieve the target, his pledge came as global environmental activists have lambasted the world's third-largest economy for its lukewarm measures to fight global warming.

He made the commitment in a wide-ranging, 25-minute debut policy speech in the Japanese Diet as Prime Minister, drawing applause from lawmakers.

"Responding to climate change should no longer be seen as a constraint on economic growth," Mr Suga said.

"We must change our way of thinking and realise that the adoption of proactive measures to achieve structural reform in industry will lead to significant growth in the economy."

Also at the session was his predecessor Shinzo Abe, who stepped down for health reasons last month but remains MP for a constituency in his home town Yamaguchi.

Japan's previously-stated goal was to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

Mr Suga cited next-generation solar cells and carbon recycling as potential innovations that might help Japan achieve its target.

But he added that nuclear power - adopted with "the highest priority on safety" - will continue to be part of the carbon-neutral push.

However, he did not give any details on how Japan might wean itself from its reliance on coal power - which has only grown as the Fukushima disaster of 2011 forced the shutdown of nuclear plants nationwide - but said the country will "fundamentally change its policy on coal-fired power generation".

It is unclear if this means that Japan will stop building what it calls energy-efficient coal power plants.

Japan said in July that it will retire 100 ageing, inefficient coal plants over the next decade, out of the 140 plants now in operation.

Another 16 are being built.

Industry Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama told a news conference later that detailed plans to achieve the net-zero carbon goal will be drawn up by the end of this year, including concrete measures to promote hydrogen energy, battery storage, carbon recycling and wind power.

The Asia Investor Group on Climate Change (AIGCC) said that investors are on the lookout for "concrete near-term measures that incentivise a smooth transition towards net-zero emissions in Japan, starting with updated 2030 targets for energy and emissions".

Under the current 2030 plan, drawn up with 2015 levels as the baseline, Japan aims to cut its coal dependency from 32 per cent to 26 per cent and increase its target for renewables from 17 per cent to up to 24 per cent.

The AIGCC estimates that renewables must make up half of Japan's energy mix by that year, with limited use of coal and gas, so as to maintain an orderly transition consistent with capping the global temperature rise at 1.5 deg C.

Mr Suga also discussed the need to revitalise a pandemic-hit economy in his speech, vowing to balance socio-economic needs with curbing the spread of Covid-19.

He reiterated his digitisation push and vowed to promote telework and tourism, so as to woo more people to Japan's rural regions, which are demographically hollowing out.

On diplomacy, he echoed Mr Abe's playbook, affirming the push to realise a Free and Open Indo-Pacific with those that share common basic values, such as Asean, Australia, India and Europe, alongside the need to work together with China and South Korea to forge ties.

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