The Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga, has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The climate goal puts Japan in line with the European Union and the UK’s climate objectives. Japan’s pledge comes one month after China’s announcement that they will achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The proximity of Japan’s announcement to that of China raises the question: is this move motivated by competition with the economic powerhouse or a desire for long-term environmental sustainability?

The Importance of Climate Action

Major action needs to be taken to minimize the effects of climate change around the world. The UN has indicated that the global rise in temperature can be limited to 1.5ºC if significant adjustments are made in the next 10 years. Keeping global warming under 2ºC would lower the risk of extreme weather events such as droughts, wildfires and floods. Curbing the global rise in temperature would also reduce the loss of many plant and animal species.

Additionally, climate change exacerbates inequalities through environmental racism, and disproportionately impacts developing nations and indigenous peoples around the world. This reinforces the necessity for high carbon emitting states such as Japan, China and the United States to commit to and execute carbon neutrality by 2050.

What is Carbon Neutrality?

Carbon neutrality is defined by the European Union as “a balance between emitting carbon and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere in carbon sinks.” In essence, Japan and many other countries are seeking to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere at the same rate that they are producing it.

Carbon neutrality can be achieved by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through carbon sinks, which absorb more carbon than they emit. Natural carbon sinks, such as soil, forests and oceans, remove much less CO2 per year than emissions produced globally. Roughly 9.5 gigatonnes of CO2 is removed by carbon sinks versus 38.0 gigatonnes of CO2 emitted each year.

States can also reduce their overall emissions through carbon offsets, which involves investing in renewable energy and low-carbon technology. Japan aims to increase the use of wind and solar energy to further decrease reliance on coal and other fossil fuels.

Growth Versus Environment

Achieving carbon neutrality is an essential step in the fight against climate change, but for many countries, the promise of short-term economic growth has overridden any desire for long-term environmental sustainability. According to Jeffrey Broadbent, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, this is called the “growth versus environment dilemma” when “society’s economic expansion exceeds nature’s ability to absorb society’s waste products.”

In comparison, Prime Minister Suga emphasized in his speech to parliament that “responding to climate change is no longer a constraint on economic growth” and that he “intends to make a sustainable economy a pillar of his growth strategy.” This indicates a shifting point of view on the relationship between environment and economic growth. As some experts project high costs for Japan to reach its 2050 target, it will be interesting to see how Prime Minister Suga plans on balancing the economy while pursuing carbon neutrality. 

Japan’s Reliance on Fossil Fuels

Japan is an island nation that is small in size but incredibly dense in population, especially in its urban areas. The current population of Japan is above 126 million. The country also has few energy resources which means that it is mostly reliant on imported fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas. These conditions make Japan the world’s 5th highest emitter of carbon dioxide and the world’s fifth largest oil consumer in 2019. With these conditions in mind, it is all the more significant that the Prime Minister has made the pledge to go carbon neutral by 2050.

Historical Background

In the 1960’s, Japan achieved incredible economic growth after the devastation of World War II.  By the 1970’s Japan was responsible for 10% of the world’s economic activity, mainly through industrial production. Economic growth improved the quality of life in Japan, but with new industrialization came “the world’s worst industrial pollution.”

From 1960 onwards, the Japanese population was experiencing negative health impacts from heavy pollution. Many anti-pollution movements gained traction, and were successful in pressuring the Japanese government to pass several laws which regulated industries and paid restitution to victims of severe pollution. This success demonstrates the importance of public pressure to hold governments accountable for climate change initiatives. In September, 2020, many young demonstrators participated in a climate strike in front of the Japanese legislature in Tokyo. Activists lined up 100 pairs of shoes to symbolize their stand against climate change and laid out signs which read “no to coal” and “we are running out of time”.

Will Japan Follow Through?

Notably, Suga’s carbon neutrality pledge has been flagged as being ‘not specific enough’, and critics are concerned that a concrete plan of action has yet to be made. For example, Green Peace Japan announced that they welcome Japan’s pledge for carbon neutrality, but that the policy must match the commitment.

Skepticism towards pledges such as the promise of carbon neutrality stems from many failed attempts of states to ratify and follow through on climate initiatives. To see an example outside of Japan, we need not look far. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that Canada is ‘on track’ to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, however government data shows that Canada’s current policies are projected to achieve annual emission rates only 19% below 2005 levels in 2030.

Conclusion

It seems that Prime Minister Suga’s carbon pledge is a step in the right direction. It is symbolically important and encouraging when a high emission country considers carbon neutrality as a useful investment, and not an impediment to economic growth. Nevertheless, the world has a long way to go and governments must be held accountable by the international community to follow through on their promises. Our future relies on it.

Toko Peters

Toko is from Vancouver, BC, and was born in Hamamatsu, Japan. After obtaining her B.A. in International Relations at UBC, she continued to pursue her passion and affinity for writing, politics, and world...

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