Japan pledges to become carbon-neutral by 2050

Julian Ryall
·3-min read
A wind turbine in Yokohama, Japan
A wind turbine in Yokohama, Japan

Japan, the world's third-largest economy, will be carbon neutral by 2050, the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has pledged.

Mr Suga, who took over as prime minister on September 16, used his first policy speech to the Japanese parliament to outline an ambitious plan to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.

The plan goes significantly beyond the commitment of the preceding government to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 and to be carbon-neutral “as soon as possible” in the latter part of the century. 

It makes Japan the largest economy to commit to net zero emissions by 2050, after the UK became the first major economy to do so last year, followed by the European Union. 

And it comes after Beijing declared that China would become carbon neutral by 2060, leaving the US increasingly isolated on climate diplomacy. 

The commitment will require the country to rethink its relationship with coal, on which it has increased dependence since turning away from nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011. 

In his address, Mr Suga, who took over as prime minister on September 16, said, “Responding to climate change is no longer a constraint on economic growth.

“We need to alter our way of thinking to the view that taking assertive measures against climate change will lead to changes in industrial structures and the economy that will bring about great growth”, he said.

To applause from politicians in the chamber, he added: “I declare that we will aim to realise a decarbonised society.” 

Mr Suga did not spell out the details of how Japan, the world’s fifth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, will become carbon neutral in just 30 years, but he did say that the country would “fundamentally shift” its long-standing commitment to coal and recommit to nuclear energy. 

In tandem with those efforts, the Japanese government intends to encourage the development of next-generation energy technologies, such as large-capacity energy storage devices, carbon recycling and advanced solar batteries.

With limited natural resources, Japan invested heavily in nuclear energy from the mid-1950s, with the first reactors constructed in the 1970s. By 2010, around 30 percent of the nation’s power was coming from nuclear plants and that was scheduled to rise to 40 percent.

However, the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in March 2011 forced the government to shut down all 54 nuclear reactors across the country for safety inspections and upgrades to ensure that another earthquake and tsunami could not have the same devastating effect. At present, only nine reactors have returned to operational status.

Without nuclear energy, Japan has been forced to import coal and natural gas in larger quantities, although it has also been an opportunity for advances in the solar, wind and geothermal power sectors.

There are questions, though, over whether Japan will be able to reach Mr Suga’s targets.

Dave Jones, an analyst at climate think tank Ember, said it was a “really exciting announcement”. 

“Japan is even now stubbornly promoting high-efficiency coal generation, so these are welcome words,” he said. 

Dr Alison Doig, International Lead at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) said the move was “a significant green shift for the world’s third biggest economy, given its prior determined reluctance to let go of a coal powered future.” 

She added: “Following commitments made by the UK, EU, Canada and China, the USA is looking increasingly isolated on the climate agenda as it approaches its election. “