Japan’s energy sector and its future greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are in a critical moment. After the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Japan halted all existing nuclear operations and significantly scaled back its 2020 emissions-reduction target. As Japan revises its energy policy over the next few years, officials will decide the future of the country’s energy mix—and the future of its climate action.

In collaboration with the Open Climate Network, researchers at Japan’s Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES) analyzed the country’s latest 2020 GHG emissions-reduction target, as well as recent mitigation policies. Results show that Japan can likely go beyond its emissions-reduction target with existing initiatives, but needs to pursue more ambitious action in the long-term to truly overcome the climate change challenge.

Japan Can Be More Ambitious in its Emissions-Reduction Target

In 2009, Japan announced one of the most ambitious GHG-reduction pledges among developed countries. Known as the Copenhagen Pledge, the country committed to reduce its emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, driven largely by an expansion of nuclear power. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, however, the Japanese government replaced this initial target with the Warsaw Target (announced in 2013), which calls for a 3.8 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 (a 3.1 percent increase from 1990 levels). The Warsaw Target assumes no nuclear power generation and uses an ambitious GDP growth projection. The target is tentative, however, and Japan will likely revise it based on further review of its energy policy.

While the move away from nuclear is understandable in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, IGES’s analysis shows that the size of the Warsaw Target’s rollback from the Copenhagen Pledge was much larger than the volume of GHG emissions that nuclear power generation was expected to displace. As Japan revises the Warsaw Target, it may be able to achieve deeper emissions reductions and increase the ambition of its target by fully implementing mitigation policies adopted after the Fukushima disaster. For example:

  • The Feed-In-Tariff (FIT) scheme is the country’s main policy measure to boost renewable energy deployment. Between April 2012 and December 2013, 7 GW of new renewable power capacity became operational, 97 percent of which came from solar PV. As of this year, offshore wind power was also included in the FIT scheme. The Japan Renewable Energy Foundation estimates that the current renewable power capacity could provide 12.7 percent of total electricity generation, which could help put the country on a path toward meeting the 13.5 percent renewable electricity deployment goal laid out in its 2014 Basic Energy Plan.

  • The Global Warming Tax, enacted in October 2012, covers about 80 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions, charging about US$3 per metric ton of carbon dioxide on fossil fuels at the point of production or import. Annual revenues from the tax are expected to be around US$2.6 billion after 2016 and will be used to promote energy conservation , renewable energy, distributed generation, and innovative technologies (such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and advanced batteries for intermittent renewable electricity supply). It’s important that the country spend this tax revenue effectively, as it’s expected to reduce emissions more than decreasing energy demand due to the increased fossil fuel price.

  • The Japanese government plans to tackle energy efficiency by strengthening thermal insulation in households and buildings. For example, in 2013, building materials that do not require electricity—including window and insulation materials—were incorporated into Japan’s national energy efficiency industry standards program for the first time. Moreover, the Japanese government plans to mandate that households comply with 1999 thermal insulation standards by 2020, but a revision of the relatively weak standards (compared to other developed countries) is needed.

  • Guidelines for CO2 emissions from new fossil fuel-fired power plants were developed in 2012. The guidelines require that power plant technology conforms to at least best available technology standards. Moreover, guidelines stipulate that CO2 emissions from new coal-fired power plants that exceed those of gas-fired power plants must be offset with international credits until a mitigation target is set for the power sector. As with any policy or plans to use international offset credits, the accounting of associated GHG emissions should be based on robust and internationally accepted guidelines.

Japan Must Not Lose Sight of its Long-Term Targets

It’s likely that Japan can go beyond its Warsaw Target by effectively implementing existing and forthcoming policy efforts and electricity-saving initiatives. However, the country shouldn’t lose sight of its long-term climate goal. Japan committed to reduce its emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Any future energy and climate plans will need to be ambitious enough to put the country on a trajectory for achieving that target.

As countries like Japan prepare their post-2020 pledges for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it’s important they make significant GHG-reduction commitments. As climate impacts intensify, governments should pay increased attention to both realizing targets and revising them to be more ambitious.

LEARN MORE: Download our full publication, GHG Mitigation in Japan: An Overview of the Current Policy Landscape.