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The sad reality of Japan’s zero-carbon goal

By Masato Hara, Asahi editorial board member


It is as if a “green bubble” has swallowed the entire world economy. One country after another has disclosed an ambitious CO2 reduction goal and is preparing to pour an enormous amount of their budgets into environment-related businesses.


Last fall, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged that Japan would achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Toward the end of the year, he joined the carbon-reduction competition in earnest by announcing the Green Growth Strategy. His initiatives were wholeheartedly welcomed by the media.


The environment-conscious Biden administration has returned the United States to the Paris Accord, which aims to achieve net-zero emissions worldwide by 2050. A Climate Summit is scheduled for April, and Suga plans to attend. These developments, however, remind me of something I have seen before.


Twelve years ago at U.N. Headquarters in New York, then-Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama gave a speech at the start of a summit meeting on climate change, pledging that by 2020, he would reduce Japan’s carbon emissions by 25% from 1990 levels. His words were received with enthusiasm, and the news media, including the Asahi Shimbun, praised his speech in their editorials.


There was, however, an extremely heated discussion in the Asahi Shimbun’s editorial room over the tone of its editorial piece. Most of the editorial staff heartily approved of the Hatoyama speech. Only a few of us, including myself, opposed taking too exuberant a tone. The reason why I couldn’t unreservedly approve Hatoyama’s declaration was that both the numerical goal and the roadmap for realizing it were too far removed from reality.


Last year, Hatoyama’s target year, global CO2 emissions likely declined by about 8% from the previous year because of the COVID-induced economic sluggishness. Although Japanese CO2 emissions likely declined as well, the rate of the decline was far below 25%.


Suga’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 is a much tougher goal to achieve [than Hatoyama’s]. In fact, if the U.N. added up the emission goals of the Paris Accord’s 75 signatories, carbon emissions in 2030 would decline by mere 1% from the 2010 level. If the global community is serious about achieving net-zero emissions, then the countries must be prepared to sacrifice even their countries’ economic growth.


Is climate change such an existential threat to humans that it warrants such an enormous sacrifice? “There isn’t enough concrete scientific evidence to say it is,” says Taishi Sugiyama of The Canon Institute for Global Studies.


“Climatic anomalies are said to have increased. Based on observation data since the end of World War II, however, the number of natural disasters, including typhoons, torrential rains, and extreme heat, has not increased much,” says Sugiyama. “In 2006, a documentary film called “An Inconvenient Truth” featured former Vice President Al Gore and his work to raise awareness of climate issues. He warned in the film that snow would no longer fall on Mt. Kilimanjaro by 2020. In fact, however, snow continues to fall there to this day.”


“Of course, we should take measures against climate change. If governments are going to spend enormous amounts of money, however, they should make that decision with their eyes wide open to the fact that there are uncertainties surrounding the issue from the perspective of science,” says Sugiyama. Sugiyama was a member of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that is composed of environmental experts. He was one of the authors of the IPCC report, which was used as the basis for setting the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.


“The panel’s report clearly stated that [scientific uncertainties exist]. But some politicians intentionally chose to summarize the report as calling for radical measures, and [that interpretation was] accepted around the world.”


These days, the shift toward a zero-carbon economy seems to have left the realm of science and transformed into an economic war over global hegemony. It has essentially become a turf war, where countries try to secure their position before others do in transitioning from coal to renewable energy sources and from gasoline-powered cars to electric vehicles.


“Japan is at a significant disadvantage in this battle,” says an informed source in the government. As an island nation, Japan is unable to share electricity with neighboring countries, making it difficult for Japan to completely rely on renewable energy sources, whose supply tends to fluctuate. Additionally, unlike Europe, Japan is not blessed with shoals, limiting its options for offshore wind-powered energy.


Japan’s auto industry, the backbone of the national economy, faces trouble, as well. Japanese automakers’ forte of producing gasoline-powered vehicles could quickly turn into a liability as global consumers leave the traditional auto market for the electric vehicle market.


“It is just like the days leading up to the Pacific War, when Japan was hemmed in because of energy security issues,” said one of the government officials.


Japan has no prospect of achieving the net-zero goal and realizing a post-carbon society. Furthermore, maintaining industrial competitiveness will become increasingly difficult. At a minimum, Japan must not allow its domestic industry to miss out on the carbon-free economy and the associated business opportunities, which are expected to be worth about 3,000 trillion yen worldwide.


This is the sad reality of Japan’s zero-carbon goal that Suga so proudly and ambitiously declared.

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