Asia

As Japan pledges big spending on climate action, coal is still the elephant in the room

TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, fresh from a resounding general election victory on Sunday, scooted off to Glasgow, where he spent just eight hours before he returned to Tokyo on Wednesday (Nov 3).

The whirlwind trip to attend the COP26 climate summit was meant to be a show of intent and solidarity that Japan, which has long been a coal-addicted climate laggard, is a responsible, credible and trustworthy climate actor in Asia.

Mr Kishida made use of his international debut as prime minister to pledge another US$10 billion (S$13.5 billion) over five years to help emerging Asia achieve its climate goals. This comes on top of US$60 billion that was already pledged.

He said Japan will work with partners like the Asian Development Bank to launch an innovative financial facility for climate, and pursue a US$100 million project to develop hydrogen or ammonia-fired power plants.

It is up to Mr Kishida to ensure that Japan puts its money where its mouth is.

Ms Kimiko Hirata, international director of Japan climate non-profit Kiko Network, said that while Japan has made positive steps, these are sorely inefficient to fulfil its part in keeping global warming under 1.5 deg C above pre-industrial levels, as per Paris Agreement goals.

Japan’s revised 2030 energy mix targets still include 41 per cent fossil fuel-fired thermal power – 20 per cent liquefied natural gas, 19 per cent coal and 2 per cent oil – though down from the original proposal of 76 per cent.

“The biggest issue is how Japan can accelerate its energy transitions,” she said. “Japan’s aim to continue using coal beyond 2030 is already not compatible with the 1.5 deg C goal.”

The other components of its plan include 36 per cent to 38 per cent renewables and 20 per cent to 22 per cent nuclear.

On the other hand, Japan is building nine coal power plants, with 165 still operational. Tokyo has given the assurance that these plants are being upgraded to become more carbon-efficient and low-emission, with the aim of eventually being converted to zero-emission.

But perhaps more damningly, Japan is said to be among countries that lobbied for a weakened United Nations report ahead of the COP26 climate summit, with a call to completely phase out fossil fuels deleted from the document.

At the heart of this is wariness and risk aversion to moving away from fossil fuels too quickly. And in Japan’s pledges to support the decarbonisation of emerging Asia, aid recipients do not have to commit to a specific deadline if they pledge to reach carbon-neutrality “as soon as possible”.

Among the arguments for this is that renewable energy remains an unstable power source, while pressuring developing countries to go green too quickly may backfire on their economic development.

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Japan has been spending a lot on building carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) technology that can recover carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for effective use.

But experts say that as the technology is premised on the very use of carbon dioxide, it ironically reduces the urgency to phase out fossil fuels.

Professor Yukari Takamura of the University of Tokyo Institute for Future Initiatives told The Straits Times that CCUS was important as a “last one-mile technology”, but investments should not be at the expense of cleaner technology such as renewables that are becoming cheaper.

Ms Hirata added: “Japan has prioritised CCUS too much, investing and spending too much money that delays actions that we can take immediately, while prolonging the lifetime of existing technology that emits carbon dioxide.”

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