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Mixed messages on climate and energy as Japan approaches G7 Presidency

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Fumio Kishida, current Prime Minister of Japan, where the G7 will be hosted in Hiroshima in 2023 and will face scrutiny on its lack of progress on coal phase out. Photo by UN Geneva on flickr.
Fumio Kishida, current Prime Minister of Japan, where the G7 will be hosted in Hiroshima in 2023 and will face scrutiny on its lack of progress on coal phase out. Photo by UN Geneva on flickr.

As the G7 countries prepared for the Leaders’ Summit in Germany at the end of June, Japan was already gearing up for its own presidency of the group. Barring any upsets, Prime Minister Kishida will host his peers in his hometown of Hiroshima in the summer of 2023. While nuclear weapons disarmament is sure to feature strongly when leaders gather in the symbolic city, Japan faces another challenge in how to lead the group on climate and decarbonisation.

Both the current and previous G7 presidents have left distinctive handprints on international climate policy. In 2021, the G7 under the UK Presidency agreed to stop public financing of international coal power projects, a decision which successfully pushed China to do the same. Last month, G7 climate, energy and environment ministers pledged to extend the ban on international finance to the whole unabated fossil fuel sector. Domestically they committed to aiming at “predominantly” decarbonised power sectors by 2035, including the eventual phaseout of unabated coal power. If implemented with integrity, collective action by the G7 can demonstrate a pathway for rapid decarbonisation of the power sector, getting out of coal and gas while spurring renewables deployment.

Though Japan agreed to all this on paper, it is no secret that it has been a somewhat reluctant partner and has been trying to tone down or reinterpret the group’s agreed climate ambitions. At home, sectoral ministers have asserted that the commitments do not require a change to Japan’s current domestic and overseas policies. This is even though Japan is still expecting to produce over 40 per cent of its power from fossil fuels in 2030. Several new coal power plants are still under construction across the country. Japan is also currently putting billions of dollars into oil and gas projects overseas annually, and new concerns are emerging about its plan to export coal co-firing technologies to Asia under the pretext of low-carbon hydrogen and ammonia. Limited progress on has often put Japan at the bottom of analyses comparing the G7 countries’ transition away from coal.

The impression is that Japan is willing to sign on to climate commitments with its peers so as not to be embarrassed as the odd one out. But what exactly Japan plans to do in practice is another matter.

Though the final tally of climate progress from Germany’s G7 remains to be seen, Prime Minister Kishida and his cabinet should already be thinking about ways to build on recent G7 achievements during its own Presidency. Japan wants to be seen as a climate leader, and a model for the transition in Asia. However when the international community turns its gaze toward Japan next year, it will not be as impressed as Japan’s political leadership hopes, if all it sees is politics as usual.

When Japan hosted the G20 in 2019, local civil society and the international media didn’t miss the opportunity to draw attention to Japan’s dependence on coal. Global expectations on decarbonisation progress have only grown since then, given the focus on alignment to the Paris Agreement 1.5C goal and the Glasgow Climate Pact commitment to the “phasedown” of coal power generation. Now, the International Energy Agency (IEA) is also calling for advanced economies to phase out unabated coal by 2030.

The country’s climate-forward companies have called for an immediate review of the energy policy, advocating for raising the renewable energy target to 40-50 per cent in electricity production by 2030.

The Russia-Ukraine war and energy crisis have raised the priority of energy security in Japan too. However, some in Japan’s business community and academia are voicing their concerns about Japan’s response to the situation. While Europe and the US look strategically at ways to accelerate decarbonisation in the mid-term, Japanese leadership appears content with an expedient, tactical approach, emphasising finding alternative fossil fuel suppliers. In contrast, the country’s climate-forward companies have called for an immediate review of the energy policy, advocating for raising the renewable energy target to 40-50 per cent in electricity production by 2030.

Japan’s G7 presidency will also coincide with the UN’s Global Stocktake, the process for evaluating countries’ progress on climate mitigation. As the world’s fifth biggest emitter, Japan will be one of the countries in the spotlight. The clock is ticking for Prime Minister Kishida and his administration to convince their G7 partners and the rest of the world they are willing and able to deliver climate progress.

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