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Climate Change

Suga stopped short of 50% emissions cut, after White House visit

Climate summit closes, kicking off global push to update Paris Agreement

U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga meet at the White House on April 16. The American leader did not demand a specific carbon reduction target during this meeting.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- U.S. President Joe Biden's summit on climate change closed on Friday after two days of talks, eliciting new 2030 carbon-reduction pledges from many countries. With Washington back at the table, the world has began a process of updating the Paris Agreement, with the next major event being the global summit in November in the Scottish city of Glasgow.

According to a summary released by the White House, announcements at the summit included:

The U.S. setting an economy-wide emissions target of a 50-52% reduction below 2005 levels in 2030

Japan cutting emissions 46-50% below 2013 levels by 2030, with strong efforts toward achieving a 50% reduction

Canada strengthening its nationally determined contributions (NDC) to a 40-45% reduction from 2005 levels by 2030

India reiterating its target of 450 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030

The U.K. embedding in law a 78% greenhouse gas reduction below 1990 levels by 2035

The EU putting into law a target of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and a net zero target by 2050

South Korea terminating public overseas coal finance and strengthening its NDC this year to be consistent with its 2050 net zero goal

China indicating that it will join the Kigali Amendment, strengthening the control of non-CO2 greenhouse gases, strictly controlling coal-fired power generation projects, and phasing down coal consumption

Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump had labeled the Paris Agreement as unfair, saying it "punishes" the U.S. while imposing "no meaningful obligations" on other major polluters such as China and India. But the Biden presidency has pushed countries to set stronger targets.

In Japan, there was an extensive back and forth among officials leading up to the summit. Despite the "46-50%" announcement in the summary, the figure Suga told the summit was 46%.

"A goal of 46% in reductions would mean that Japan will raise our current target by more than 70% and it will certainly not be an easy task," he said.

When adjusted to the same baseline, Tokyo's reduction goal pales against those of Western counterparts. U.S. and European targets aim to cut emissions by around 50% compared to 2010 levels. Japan would measure a 42% reduction from 2010.

Deeper cuts would require Japan to fundamentally revamp its regulations for transmission and distribution of electricity and achieve a massive introduction of renewable energy. With international pressure to ditch coal-fired generation, Japanese companies risk losing competitiveness if drastic measures are taken.

Suga at one point considered a deeper cut of 50%, Nikkei has learned.

At the two-and-a-half-hour meeting with Biden in the White House on April 16, Suga was somewhat surprised that the American president had not personally demanded a carbon emissions target from Japan.

Along with the issue of Taiwan, it was the two topics that the Japanese leader was bracing for.

American climate envoy John Kerry earlier had urged Tokyo to aim for a 50% cut. By having Japan and the U.S. lay out ambitious targets, hand in hand with decarbonization leader Europe, the international community would put more pressure on China to follow suit, Kerry had argued.

A few days before the White House visit, trade minister and Suga confidant Hiroshi Kajiyama told the Japanese leader that 39% was the limit from the ministry's standpoint, and that it would be unable to explain to parliament and to the public the reasoning for cuts beyond that.

"Anything above that will be a political decision made by you, the prime minister," he said.

After weighing the risks, Suga decided before departing for the U.S. that Japan would commit to a 50% emissions cut, if Biden asked for it.

But two unexpected things happened during the White House visit.

First, on the day of the meeting, Washington asked for a last-minute change to the joint statement. The Americans wanted to remove language stating that the countries would announce new 2030 emissions targets before the climate summit set for six days later. Domestic considerations likely drove this change. Despite Biden's enthusiasm for decarbonization, the issue affects significant U.S. industries including coal and shale.

The other surprise was Biden's handling of the topic during the meeting. For all Suga's preparations, the president never asked for a specific target. In a joint news conference afterward, Biden said the two countries would "rally key nations of the world to making ambitious climate commitments."

Without the expected pressure from Washington, the calculus for Tokyo on the 2030 question looked very different.

Suga had voiced concern for some time about the potential economic impact of a tougher 2030 target, which he said would put a heavier burden on businesses than the longer-term 2050 goal. The focus shifted to how the relevant cabinet ministers -- Kajiyama and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi -- would approach the matter.

On Thursday morning, with the climate summit set to kick off hours later, Kajiyama and Koizumi gave their report to Suga at the prime minister's office. Japan, they said, could go as high as a 46% emissions cut.

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