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Japan and climate change -- leader turned laggard

Abe government must refocus on carbon emissions, taking its cue from private sector pioneers

| Japan
Japanese people must see climate change as an imminent threat, requiring immediate action.   © Kyodo

In 1997, Japan was at the forefront of climate action. The birthplace of the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement committing countries to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the country came to be synonymous with cutting carbon.

Fast-forward 21 years and Japan has struggled to make significant progress on reducing its own emissions.

Japan has a very limited supply of natural resources, so energy security dominates the political agenda, with climate change seen as the poor relation. With public concern over the safety of nuclear power following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant accident still high, and renewables languishing at around 15% of the energy mix, Japan still depends largely on imported fossil fuels.

The country seems hooked on coal. The share of coal in the electricity mix actually increased from 10% in 1990 to 31% in 2015. With ambitions to build around 40 new coal-fired power plants, on top of some 100 existing ones, it's not surprising that fossil fuels still dominate energy plans. By 2030 the government envisages that fossil fuels will make up 56% of the Japanese energy mix -- more than the nuclear (20-22%) and renewable (22-24%) capacity combined.

What's more, Japan has been slow to reduce emissions by enhancing the energy efficiency of domestic infrastructure. Homes in Japan are designed to be earthquake-proof and tend to be built with the humid summer weather in mind. As a result, buildings often have thin walls that provide minimal insulation, resulting in the overuse of air conditioning units both in the summer and in the winter.

Taking all this into account, Japan's contribution to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement -- a target to reduce its emissions by 26% by 2030, against a 2013 baseline -- is considered unambitious on the international stage.

Japan needs to catch up. Change is needed at all levels, from the routine of every citizen to national energy policy. It is strange that a population so careful about their local environment, willing to help reduce local factory pollution and clear up sports stadiums can seem somewhat uninterested in doing much about climate change. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and the realities of climate change science are now generally accepted facts. Japanese people must fully grasp that climate change is a no longer a remote threat -- action is needed now.

With Europe working toward minimum cuts of 40% in greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels) by 2030 and China aiming for non-fossil power to account for more than 50% of total power generation by the same date, Japan needs to sharpen up its act or risk getting left behind in terms of efficiency and technology, as well as the environment.

Fortunately, many of the country's largest corporations are pursuing a low-carbon future.

For example, in 2017, Japan was the second best represented country (after the U.S.) on the A List, a system that ranks the world's businesses on environmental performance compiled by CDP, a global nonprofit body encouraging companies and cities to provide environmental impact information. Konica Minolta, Mitsubishi Electric and Sony were all highlighted as corporate pioneers in tackling climate change.

Sixty-four Japanese companies have committed to set emissions reductions targets in line with what science says is needed to hold global temperature rise well below 2 C -- something known as a science-based target. Panasonic, Sony and Sekisui Chemical have already had their plans approved by the Science Based Targets initiative, a collaboration between CDP and global environmental organizations which champions science-based targets as a powerful way of boosting companies' competitive advantage in switching to the low-carbon economy.

Meanwhile, 11 Japanese companies -- including AEON, Fujitsu and Ricoh -- have committed to source 100% renewable energy through RE100, a collaborative, global initiative uniting businesses committed to 100% renewable electricity. In addition, Nippon Life, a large institutional investor, has stopped financing coal-fired power plants.

All these businesses recognize that tackling climate change is necessary to ensure a stable future, but also that it will generate new growth opportunities.

Individual company actions send crucial signals to policymakers, markets and consumers that change is happening now. However, it is only it is through broader collective action that we can drive real transformation in Japan.

This is why this July a broad group of 105 companies, organizations and local governments launched the Japan Climate Initiative (JCI). Inspired by the We are Still In movement in the U.S., (a force of over 3,500 cities, states, businesses and other institutions committed to facing the climate challenge), the JCI aims to achieve decisive action on the Paris Agreement in Japan. The organizations which have joined so far -- over 200 -- pledge to tackle global challenges to build a sustainable economy.

Making a pledge is all well and good, but real change on the ground is what is needed. The JCI has a concrete action plan to support transition to a decarbonized society. This focuses on all members developing their own climate actions -- whether these be setting science-based targets or sourcing 100% renewable energy -- and working together within and between sectors.

Whilst the government plans for renewable capacity languish at 22-24% of total output, companies such as e-commerce group Askul are committed to sourcing 100% renewable electricity by 2030. Meanwhile computer maker Fujitsu has is targeting to source 40% of its electricity from renewables by 2030 and 100% by 2050.

We hope that such individual commitments, combined with collective movements, will convince the government to strengthen its emissions reductions plans, so that Japanese 2030 targets for renewable energy are more comparable to those in Europe and China.

Yet the supply side of the story is only part of the equation. If Japan is to become a low-carbon leader, improvements in energy efficiency will have to play a major part. Homes must be better insulated, energy use needs to be better managed and individuals should embrace changes that a lower-carbon society may entail. Japan's natural resource constraints mean that everybody must act to help develop an energy future that is as much about sustainability as it is about security.

Michiyo Morisawa is director of the Japan office of CDP (formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project), a global environmental impact nonprofit, providing a platform for all companies and cities to report information on their climate, water and deforestation impacts.

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