Tokyo Report

Japan’s Opportunity to Take a Leadership Role on Climate Change

Tokyo has a window of opportunity to lead on climate change at the G-20.

By Phyllis Genther Yoshida for
Japan’s Opportunity to Take a Leadership Role on Climate Change
Credit: Pawel Nolbert

The time is right for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to assume an even greater global leadership role on climate change as it has done successfully for regional trade liberalization. Japan has a window of opportunity to lead by demonstrating how to decouple economic and emissions growth in the energy and transportation sectors, both domestically and internationally, while providing expanded economic opportunities and energy access.

Last year, extreme weather events cost the world around $215 billion. The Global Carbon Project announced that global carbon emissions hit an all-time high in 2018, rising 2.7 percent over 2017. The United Nations Environment Program in its Emission Gap Report stated, “Now more than ever, unprecedented and urgent action is required by all nations. The assessment of actions by the G20 countries indicates that this is yet to happen…”

Yet, despite these and other ominous findings, COP24, the United Nations climate conference in Katowice, Poland last December, made little progress beyond agreeing to rules on how to measure and report on emissions cutting measures, and a mélange of specific company, civil society, and country announcements. Rumblings of discontent on the impact of climate measures on economic growth are growing in France, Brazil, and elsewhere. The will to undertake aggressive actions appears to be diminishing. Why? Many countries, including Japan and the United States, have yet to sufficiently balance the needs of economic growth with those of environmental sustainability.

Abe has called for ambitious commitments regarding climate change in preparation for the G-20 Summit in Osaka in June. He made clear his position at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, stating, “Spending money on a green earth and a blue ocean — once deemed costly — is now a growth generator. We must invite more disruptive innovations before it’s too late.”

But will Abe be able to follow up on his call and stimulate action that goes beyond just rhetoric?

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Japan is well positioned to up its game on climate matters. It has been vocal on climate issues internationally, with extensive activities that date back to the Kyoto Protocol. Japan has impressive technology that could be demonstrated and implemented, and it is situated in Asia, a continent that has dominated global CO2 emissions since the early 2000s, making the participation of Asian countries indispensable to the success of any global climate initiative.

Most importantly, the climate is an issue about which the Japanese people care greatly. The growing costs from extreme weather events are energizing Japan’s civil society and forcing politicians to listen to their demands for action. According to Aon, the 2018 June-July floods in western and central Japan are estimated to have cost Japan between $7 and $23 billion. The Aon study also found that the top five global economic loss events in 2018 from extreme weather were all in the United States and Japan (Hurricanes Michael and Florence, Typhoon Jebi, the Camp Fire in California, and the aforementioned Japanese flooding).

As the United Nations’ emissions report reveals, current efforts are not adequate to decouple economic and emissions growth. Abe has invited the world to come together to focus on accelerating the virtuous cycle of environmental protection and economic growth, underscoring the need to demonstrate decoupling. Building and expanding on Japan’s energy miracle after the Fukushima crisis, along with an increased emphasis at home and abroad on decarbonizing its energy and transportation sectors, create an opportunity for Abe to take on an even greater global leadership role. These opportunities include leading on mass transportation for smart urban and suburban environments, including a variety of types of vehicle electrification. It can continue to invest in, and disseminate, the lessons of smart cities through APEC and other international fora. It can demonstrate the technological power of its advanced technologies such as energy storage and digital systems and innovative policies and practices by supporting global green finance. By taking this role, Japan can perhaps spur other nations — including the United States — to follow suit.

Dr. Phyllis Genther Yoshida, PhD is a Senior Fellow for Energy and Technology at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA. Prior to joining Sasakawa USA, Dr. Yoshida served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Asia, Europe, and the Americas at the U.S. Department of Energy.