Japan’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2050 prompted calls from the renewable energy industry and climate campaigners for detailed plans and measures to achieve the goal, which formed the centrepiece of new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s debut policy speech to the nation’s parliament.
Suga said Japan, the world's third-largest economy, would increase its reliance on renewables but also signalled a possible role for nuclear, as he accelerated a previous goal that only talked of net-zero as soon as possible after 2050.
“Responding to climate change is no longer a constraint on economic growth,” said Suga. “I declare we will aim to realise a decarbonised society,” he added, as he announced the goal which brings Japan in line with a similar commitment by the EU and comes soon after a 2060 pledge by China.
However, the Prime Minister’s speech contained little in the way of detail, and industry commentators said significant changes would be needed to make it a reality.
According to International Energy Agency figures, 88.4% of Japan's energy mix came from fossil fuels in 2019, with oil (37.91%) leading coal (27.23%) and natural gas (23.13%). With public resistance to nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, and little available land to build onshore wind and solar projects, the country might have to rely on offshore wind, carbon capture and storage, and imported clean hydrogen to meet its net-zero goal.
Edgare Kerkwijk, CEO of the Asia Wind Energy Association, told Recharge Suga’s pledge was a “significant symbolic step” that provides a “much bolder target” than the previous ambiton.
“However, the statement by PM Suga lacks a clear and detailed plan towards achieving this goal,” he added.
“Japan’s energy system is bureaucratic and inefficient. Decisive steps will need to be taken and clear policy to implement these steps is required.”
Japan is currently holding its first tenders for offshore wind, with the industry hoping for a 1GW annual build-out that will drive 10GW of installations by the end of the decade and 37GW by 2050.
Kerkwijk said: “Offshore wind will most likely be a significant part of achieving this step, and the Japanese government will most likely increase its target [for the sector].
“Other renewable technologies will, however, need to be included, while the government has not ruled out nuclear as part of this plan.”
Nuclear role questioned
The possible role of nuclear in a country still scarred by the memory of the Fukushima disaster was condemned by Greenpeace Japan, which instead called on Japan – which has also come under fire for its continued reliance on coal – to “significantly increase the proportion of [renewables in its power mix] and aim to supply 50% of its power generation with renewable energy by 2030”.
Greenpeace also warned the target will be impossible without swift and detailed policy measures.
Japan's renewables growth has historically been held back by issues as diverse as slow permitting, grid constraints and the market power of a small number of utilities.
Commentators said key to hitting net-zero will be the next review of Japan’s Basic Energy Plan due in 2021, which will set specific targets that will presumably underpin the broader ambition.