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Climate Change

Suga embarks on 'green' diplomacy, starting with US climate summit

Prime minister looks to Biden initiative to spur CO2 emissions cuts

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga hopes the climate summit that U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is planning will serve to galvanize his cabinet around new targets for cutting Japanese emissions. (Source photos by Reuters)

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will consider attending a global climate summit proposed by U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, part of a push to bring likeminded nations in line with Japan's goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

Suga will seek to work with the U.S. and Europe while pursuing dialogue with China, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, which President Xi Jinping has pledged to make carbon neutral before 2060.

The prime minister hopes the climate summit, which Biden plans to hold within his first 100 days in office, will serve to galvanize his cabinet around new targets for cutting Japanese emissions.

Achieving net-zero emissions "is absolutely necessary for Japan to catch up to global trends and to get one step ahead," Suga said in a Friday news conference, following his announcement of a 2 trillion yen ($19.2 billion) fund to promote research into decarbonization technologies.

The strength of Suga's environmental commitment will be tested at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties -- commonly called COP26 -- in the U.K. in November 2021. Japan will set new, specific goals through 2030 ahead of this meeting.

Suga wants to create a detailed roadmap toward his goal of making his country carbon neutral by 2050. (Photo by Thor Edvardsen)

The plan is supposed to come together sometime in the summer, before the leadership race for Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party in September and a lower-house election to be held by late October. Cutting carbon emissions will be a major issue in both contests.

With the fight against climate change requires the cooperation of the entire international community, Tokyo believes that showing its stance early and coordinating with the U.S. and Europe will help ensure that future regulations align with Japanese interests.

Suga is hoping to visit the U.S. separately as early as February to meet with Biden following his inauguration. Still, the coronavirus pandemic continues to pose logistical challenges to travel. "The climate summit may end up being the prime minister's first chance to for a U.S. visit in office," said a Japanese official who asked not to be named.

Japan is not alone in vowing to go carbon-neutral. In Asia, South Korea's President Moon Jae-in made a similar pledge in October, while Xi laid out China's goal in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September.

Biden pledged during his campaign to rejoin the Paris climate agreement on his first day in office, as well as to put the U.S. on track to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Their announcements follow the European Union's vow made last year to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in September also said the bloc will curb emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, lifting its previous 40% goal.

Japan until recently was seen as a passive player in the fight against climate change. The success of Suga's climate diplomacy will depend on his ability to cooperate with the U.S. Suga sees the transition to Biden from current President Donald Trump, who showed little interest in climate change policy, as an opportunity to launch a new bilateral dialogue on the environment.

The U.S. and Japan met on environmental policy under then-President Barack Obama in 2015, but have since not held any bilateral cabinet-level talks on the topic, except at international conferences.

Japan is also deepening its partnership with European countries. Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi agreed to work on environmental technology with Norwegian counterpart Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide in a call last month. Norway is preparing a full-scale carbon capture and storage project, where emissions from factories and other facilities are collected and stored underground.

Working with emerging economies, while also critical, can be trickier, as many of them prioritize economic growth over emissions reductions. Japan believes Chinese cooperation will be key to winning over such countries at the Group of 20 summit and other upcoming international gatherings.

Motegi and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed to set up a new consultation framework on climate change at their meeting in November. Wang later told reporters that the two sides will coordinate on policy and on practical measures.

Cows graze near wind farms in New Zealand. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will seek support from likeminded nations on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.   © Reuters

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