Tokyo Report | Diplomacy | Environment | East Asia

Does Japan Have a Global Environmental Strategy?

As the world’s attention turns increasingly to climate change, Japan is in prime position to lead.

By Elliot Silverberg and Elizabeth Smith for
Does Japan Have a Global Environmental Strategy?
Credit: SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

Environmentalism and sustainability have come to form a significant cornerstone of Japan’s global image and soft power in recent years. Japan’s facilitation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and its staunch advocacy for subsequent climate summits and agreements, today place Tokyo at the forefront of international efforts to combat climate change.

As a society, Japan’s respect for nature and minimalist traditions have filled the general public with images of a distinct Japanese cultural aesthetic that Tokyo is able to evoke as a national commitment to sustainability. With all eyes on Tokyo ahead of the 2020 Olympics, Japan has fed on this cultural mythos, taking steps to make sustainability a central part of the Games. Japan’s concern for the environment also reflects its inherent resource poverty and vulnerability to natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, and – per recent devastating news – typhoons.

During his international debut as environment minister at the UN General Assembly in September, Shinjiro Koizumi – tapped as a future prime minister – emphasized the commitments of major Japanese cities, including Tokyo, Kyoto, and Yokohama, to eliminating carbon emissions by 2050. Despite media coverage of Koizumi’s remarks focusing on his unusual articulation of the international response to climate change, Koizumi’s speech underscored the concrete ways that Tokyo is moving the needle on issues of sustainability.

            However, though Japan’s signature foreign policy initiatives often allude to sustainability, they fall short of singling out the environment – particularly, climate change – as a primary area of concern. Official Japanese documents describing Tokyo’s vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) emphasize the importance of rules and norms protecting “international public goods” and maintaining “economic prosperity” and “peace and stability.” As a public good indispensable to the region’s long-term prosperity and stability, a clean and safe environment should fall within the natural confines of this framework. Instead, to date, the FOIP’s commitments to freedom of navigation and trade appear to have taken precedence due to China’s maritime grey-zone activities and other efforts to encroach on regional sea lanes of communication and commerce.

Similarly, Japan’s 2013 National Security Strategy does not appear to embrace the concept of sustainability as central to foreign policy, instead elaborating on sustainable development within a broader discussion of “responding to … global issues” and “mainstreaming the concept of human security.” Further, the absence of any mention of climate change in five-year National Defense Program Guidelines released last December suggests that environmental issues have yet to be securitized, or elevated as credible threats to national security. Setting aside the disputed merits of securitizing the climate debate for the sake of galvanizing society, Japan’s tempered treatment of environmental issues in recent strategy documents is noteworthy despite its otherwise vigorous efforts to promote sustainability.

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The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken measurable steps in the fight against climate change, releasing in June a “Long-Term Strategy” for meeting Japan’s obligations under the Paris climate accord. During cabinet deliberations regarding the strategy, Abe emphasized that environmentalism and economic growth were no longer conflicting objectives to be balanced accordingly; quite the contrary, Japanese investment in sustainable technologies would provide new avenues for long-term growth. Abe also linked Japanese history and values to contemporary attitudes regarding the environment, expressing his hope that future generations would deliver more pronounced leadership.

Japan can certainly do more, particularly on the domestic front. Tokyo has weathered criticism for relying on coal to fill the gap left by nuclear energy post-Fukushima. Political and bureaucratic hurdles await as the country transitions to a cleaner energy mix. Still others fault Japan for its issues with plastic waste management. And in the lead-up to the G-20 summit in Osaka last summer, where the United States broke with the world in refusing to commit to the Paris accord (as happened at the two prior G-20s since U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration), a draft communique circulated by the host nation fell short of endorsing implementation of the climate agreement – instead reflecting Tokyo’s desire to restore a global consensus with Washington. Though the draft language was ultimately discarded, with the final communique reflecting the compromise “G19+1” approach of the 2017 and 2018 G-20 summits, several participating European and Asian countries reportedly expressed frustration with Japan’s instincts to accommodate Trump in the context of delicate bilateral trade negotiations.

Facing accusations of a weakening stance on environmental issues, Japan will look to accelerate its efforts through multilateral institutions and bilateral cooperation with developing countries across the Indo-Pacific. As Japan and China compete for access to vulnerable markets across Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Africa, Tokyo is betting that its bona fides in promoting sustainable and quality development will prove decisive for capturing new investment opportunities while supporting free and open societies worldwide.

Indeed, despite recent hiccups, Japan deserves high marks for going above and beyond in helping other countries tackle their environmental challenges. Overseas, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is one of Japan’s primary vehicles for promoting sustainability. Through the ADB – where Japan is a top shareholder and Japanese officials consistently hold leadership positions – Tokyo helped raise nearly $30 billion in climate financing for innovative technologies and projects supporting green growth between 2011 and 2018. Per the ADB’s “Strategy 2030” released in 2018, the bank committed an additional $80 billion over 12 years to mitigating climate change and disaster risk across the Asia-Pacific.

Japan has also thrown money at climate change independent of the ADB. At the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, Japan pledged $15 billion over three years to developing countries. Between 2013 and 2015, Japan contributed an additional $16 billion to “Actions for a Cool Earth.” Finally, at the 2015 Paris conference, the Japanese government pledged $13 trillion to the developing world, and convened a panel to draft a national “Energy and Environment Innovation Strategy” formalized in 2016.

The government-affiliated Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) – well known in the region for their critical, longstanding contributions to economic growth – have been the other main executors of Tokyo’s global push for sustainable development and capacity-building. Since 2010, JBIC has invested hundreds of billions of yen in high-tech “GREEN” projects addressing energy inefficiency and greenhouse gas emissions. JICA, meanwhile, contributes significant funding and technical expertise supporting environmental management, renewable energy, water conservation, and disaster reduction.

JICA has also established itself as a thought leader engaged in collaborative research on environmental issues. Studies like a 2009 joint JICA-ADB-World Bank assessment of the impacts of rising sea levels on coastal cities in Asia have helped steer global policy on climate change. Japan’s significant experience building climate-resilient infrastructure and improving disaster preparedness, both at home and through JICA projects in vulnerable areas like Thailand and Sri Lanka, have propelled groundbreaking initiatives like the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction adopted at the UN in 2015.

Japan has also used environmental issues to foster bilateral cooperation. For example, in 2015, amid political setbacks over historical issues, Japan, China, and South Korea participated in trilateral discussions regarding a five-year environmental action plan tackling climate change, air pollution, and chemical and other hazardous waste exposure. Recognizing that environmental concerns tend to be immune to diplomatic differences, Tokyo has also used the climate issue-basket to strengthen cooperation with other like-minded governments, including the ASEAN member-nations, India, and the EU.

In 2007, Japan launched a recurring Japan-ASEAN Dialogue on Environmental Cooperation, which paved the way for subsequent climate-focused bilateral mechanisms with Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Japan has also spearheaded issue-specific summitry in Asia, including fora aimed at managing urban development, promoting sustainable transportation, controlling acid rainfall, and even preserving migratory waterbird flyways in the Pacific and Indian oceans. ASEAN’s “Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” report in June identifies the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a “priority area of cooperation,” underscoring the paramount focus Southeast Asia assigns to its environment-related alignment with Japan.

With New Delhi, one of Tokyo’s most important long-term partners after the United States, Japan is supporting a nationwide push to modernize India’s infrastructure and rural economy. To date, Japanese investment has concentrated on India’s transportation, energy, and water grids, which foreign companies say pose basic environmental barriers to conducting business in India. Internationally, Japan and India are also partners on an ambitious trans-regional connectivity project called the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor. First proposed in 2016 but still in its infancy, this bilateral initiative would combine India’s access to labor with Japan’s strengths in financing and technical know-how to execute on a key Japanese priority of the FOIP – namely, bolstering Japanese economic ties to Africa. China contests Japan’s interest in Africa’s future, so much so that Tokyo was concerned Beijing might pressure African leaders into canceling their attendance at the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in August.

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Expanding cooperation with the EU – part of Tokyo’s broad outreach to preserve a rules-based international order – promises to form a third pillar of the sustainability architecture crystallizing around Japan. In September, Prime Minister Abe was in Brussels to sign a bilateral quality infrastructure pact with the EU. The text of the new agreement, central to the EU’s efforts to counter Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) activity blocking European companies in Asia, stresses the importance of promoting environmentally sustainable development – a thinly-veiled swipe at BRI’s mixed environmental record.

As the world’s attention turns increasingly to climate change, Japan should avoid bending to external pressures to soften its stance on the environment, as Paris accord supporters accused Tokyo of allowing ahead of the Osaka G-20. Rather, Japan can leverage its substantial resources and authority to burnish an already conspicuous record of global advocacy for sustainable development and human security. Particularly as the Trump administration takes a back seat on climate initiatives, Japanese leaders can use their access to Washington and credibility with the American public to serve as a bridge on environmental issues with policy and business influencers across the United States.

Beyond this, Japan could also use its stature to leave a lasting imprint on the global discourse regarding climate change, embedding its own unique cultural ethos and developmental perspective within a more cohesive and clearly articulated vision for how society can coexist with the environment. As Tokyo sketches a global strategy for promoting environmentalism and sustainability, future leaders, like Abe’s newest environment minister, should search for new ways of continuing to lead by example and experience at home and overseas.

Elliot Silverberg is a fellow with Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Elizabeth Smith is a localization consultant and freelance researcher based in Tokyo.