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Climate change

Japan must act now to regain its status of global climate leader

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Photo: B Lucava / Flickr

Japan was once a pioneer of climate leadership. Now, Mary Robinson and CEO of the ECF, Laurence Tubiana urge the country to embrace this role again by leading the technological breakthrough on clean energy systems of the future. First published in The Mainichi. 

Japan stands at a crossroads. Down one path, it can become a global climate leader; down the other, it will miss the chance to reap the benefits of the green economy. Japan is one of the countries highly exposed to the worst ravages of climate change and the economic impact of stranded assets, but if the government steps up to act now, the nation can regain its climate leader status and become a world leader in the innovative technologies of our future.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on 1.5C painted a vivid and dark picture of the consequences of global warming exceeding 1.5C. On many fronts, these consequences would be even more catastrophic for Japan than for the world as a whole: the ongoing temperature increase is faster in Japan than the world average, heavy rainfall events are increasing, and the negative impacts on agricultural productivity are already being felt and will only get worse. The impacts of sea level rise, which the scientific community now realizes have been significantly underestimated, would be nothing short of dramatic for Japan – an island where large swathes of the population live in low-lying coastal areas. Just this weekend, Super Typhoon Hagibis left a trail of death and destruction in its wake.


Japan’s announcement that it would join the Carbon Neutrality Coalition (CNC) at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York last month should be celebrated. It offers a fresh start and a clear goalpost for Japan’s climate mitigation strategy. It sets more ambitious goals – developed countries like Japan must reach carbon neutrality by 2050, a more ambitious timeline than the one it currently has, to be consistent with the Paris Agreement. Joining the CNC clearly signals that Japan understands that the time for incremental action is over – we are facing a climate emergency today. It also provides clear signals of the necessary technological and behavioral changes we need to implement – two things at which the Japanese economy and society excel.


The next step is for Japan – like other countries in the world – to develop sectoral policies and pathways to reach this goal of carbon neutrality and make its existing policies consistent with this vision. This should cover not only energy policy, but also industry, transport and agriculture – all government investment needs to be consistent. Now that Japan has a clear long-term goal, it must work backwards to redefine its short-term targets to be consistent with a realistic and secure pathway to achieve carbon neutrality on time.


Japan has a proud history of showing climate leadership in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, over the past ten years its response to the global climate crisis has been too little, too slow – it is falling short of the expectations of Japanese society and youth, and crucially, losing its competitive edge. Once a leader in producing energy-efficient and greenhouse gas-reducing technologies, Japan is now being outcompeted by both the European Union and China. It is in fact putting its domestic economy at risk, by failing to create the enabling conditions for the deployment of cost-competitive renewable energies at home and financing coal abroad.  


Japan has a major opportunity, one it should seize – it has the potential to lead the world with a decarbonized and climate-resilient economy. From truly green hydrogen, to smart cities, to battery storage, to electric vehicles, Japan can use its technological know-how to develop the innovative clean-energy systems of the future that the world needs, one where we all move from coal to renewables. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres laid out the roadmap at the Climate Action Summit last month, there can be no new coal after 2020. Countries are heeding his words, and investment is shifting – if Japan does not lead, others will. 


Another critical area where Japanese investors and businesses can lead is in finance’s critical role in the transition to a decarbonized and climate-resilient economy. The fact that Tokyo hosted the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure meeting this week is another positive development. The large number of Japanese companies reporting via the TCFD, along with the investment shifts away from coal, show that the market is moving away from a high-carbon economy. Carbon disclosure is also only a first step, which needs to be followed by the implementation of a strategy to actively decarbonize investment portfolios. But it is another sign that things are changing fast, and for the better, in Japan.


We hope these promising developments pave the way for Japan to re-engage, with renewed energy, in the global fight against climate change.  2020 will be the moment of truth, when we will assess the revised and enhanced commitments from every country,  and Japan’s leadership is needed now more than ever.


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