Today Japan announced the national climate plan — its nationally determined contribution (NDC) — that it will submit to the United Nations. Unfortunately, it is no stronger than the one submitted five years ago, keeping in place a top-line target to reduce emissions 26% by 2030 from 2013 levels. Japan is doing so despite its status as a major economy with access to advanced technologies and the fact that low-carbon options, especially renewable energy, are more affordable than ever before. Other than a few references to recent policy developments, Japan’s submission explicitly leaves its national plan unchanged.

Japan’s very weak plan has been expected for months, well before the COVID-19 crisis exploded. Coming from the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, this failure to strengthen action goes against the spirit of the Paris Agreement and puts the world on a more dangerous trajectory. The uninspired plan does not grasp either the seriousness of climate impacts for Japan nor the significant economic opportunities available by pursuing a low-carbon future.

Japan’s Minister of Environment Shinjiro Koizumi appears to have the left the door open to future improvement of the country’s national commitment. In his statement accompanying the NDC, he indicated that Japan, as part of the review of its domestic climate plan, intends to further review its policies and targets “with a view to pursue further efforts to reduce GHG emissions beyond this [current] level.” But his statement and the announced NDC provide no clear schedule for this revision to occur, thus making it is an aspiration rather than a commitment.

The initial national climate plan Japan offered in 2015 was rated as highly insufficient by Climate Action Tracker. Research shows that Japan could achieve its first NDC with existing mitigation measures alone and could strengthen its 2030 target to 42% by investing in affordable low-carbon technologies, with or without using nuclear power. Given how dramatically the cost of renewables has fallen over the last five years and the significant advancements in important technologies such as battery storage, hydrogen-based energy and electric vehicles, there is no reason Japan could not have raised ambition in its new plan.

Japan’s NDC already foresees 22%-24% of its energy to be supplied by renewable energy by 2030, but studies show that percentage will likely be achieved with existing policies alone. Japan had the chance to ramp up its renewable energy target in its 2018 National Strategy Energy Plan but did not.

Why Japan’s National Climate Plan Should Have Been Much Stronger

Japan not only has ample room to strengthen its climate plan, it has plenty of reasons do so. As Europe and others embark on serious decarbonization pathways, Japan could find itself at risk of being left behind holding stranded fossil fuel assets. That is both a financial risk and undermines Japan’s place in the international community. Studies indicate that if Japan followed a deep decarbonization pathway by 2050, it could potentially reduce its fossil fuel import bills by 70% compared to 2016, and create over 60,000 additional jobs in the domestic renewable energy sector by 2030.

The country is also particularly vulnerable to climate impacts. Losses due to extreme weather events in Japan are estimated at $2.7 billion annually already and they are poised to get worse. And yet Japan’s plan makes no mention of measures to protect its citizens from the consequences of climate change. In the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of avoiding the risk of future natural disasters or widespread disease outbreaks linked to climate change should be a high priority for country leaders. And the massive infrastructure investments that countries like Japan may take as part of efforts to reboot the economy after the COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon and more resilient economy.

Japan’s private sector has woken up to the opportunity that a low-carbon future offers. Many Japanese companies strongly support more ambitious climate action and hundreds of them have committed to set emission reduction targets that align with what is required to stem global warming. Japan Climate Leaders' Partnership (JCLP), a coalition of 126 corporations, has called on the government to raise Japan’s NDC to be in line with the Paris Agreement, and its members have committed to move forward with their own efforts to decarbonize. Last month the Japanese Climate Initiative — comprised of 142 companies, 21 municipalities and 58 organizations — also issued a statement calling for the government to strengthen its national climate commitment. International investor organizations, representing hundreds of trillions in yen,​ wrote to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month asking him to show leadership and enhance Japan’s NDC.

Some local governments, including those in Tokyo, Kyoto and Yokohama, committed to net-zero emissions targets by 2050. Combined, they represent 50 million people, close to 40% of Japan’s population and $2.3 trillion in GDP.

Japan Still Has an Opportunity to Strengthen its Plan

Japan is now planning to review its domestic Plan for Global Warming Countermeasures, which will offer a chance to strengthen its climate action. Japan can then reflect those changes in an enhanced NDC. Specifically, Japan should use this opportunity to:

  • Commit to significantly reduce emissions in the next decade and adopt a stronger target. In particular, this should be done given efforts by the European Union, which has indicated it will include a 50-55% reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2030.
  • Set an enhanced renewable energy target. Japanese companies have issued a call for Japan to boost its renewable energy targets to 50% of the country’s electricity mix by 2030. Such a target would accelerate investments in solar and offshore wind, both of which have huge potential.
  • Lay out a plan to phase out domestic coal use and put an end to overseas coal finance. Japan is currently one of the largest coal financiers in the world, providing $5.2 billion annually. Coal-related air pollution is responsable for over 800,000 premature deaths per year globally. Ending Japan’s finance for new coal projects and shifting to clean energy would have a major catalytic impact internationally. This is an opportunity for Japan to stop fueling another health crisis and demonstrate global political leadership.
  • End fossil fuel subsidies as soon as possible. Japan spent an estimated $1.8 billion on fossil fuel subsidies in 2017. Phasing out these subsidies would free up significant annual government funds for social and economic priorities such as ramping up the use of clean energy.

Given the insufficient ambition of its new national climate commitment, it is important that Japan come back to the table with a plan that creates jobs and can help stimulate the economy in the short run, while also offering the potential for long-lasting low-carbon and resilient long-term economic growth as the nation rebounds from the coronavirus. Otherwise, Japan will lose out on the economic opportunities from the low-carbon investments and yet again lag behind many countries in the developed world in the global transition to a low-carbon economy.