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A Turning Point for Japan-US Climate Cooperation? 

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Tokyo Report | Environment | East Asia

A Turning Point for Japan-US Climate Cooperation? 

Biden needs to put more pressure on Japan to abandon coal.

A Turning Point for Japan-US Climate Cooperation? 
Credit: Depositphotos

In his first press conference as Japan’s prime minister-designate, Kishida Fumio notably failed to mention climate change, much less lay out a strategy to combat it. Japan’s position in international climate politics receives considerably less attention than that of the U.S., E.U., or China. But as the world’s third largest economy and fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, Japan’s actions are of great importance in the global fight against climate change.

To understand Japan’s climate policy, we first need to understand that it is closely linked to the climate policy of the United States. As we know from seminal publications on Japan’s climate policy, the U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 gave rise to a powerful narrative in Japan that climate action without U.S. involvement would be harmful to the Japanese economy. For many years, this resulted in soft climate policies labelled “highly insufficient” by the climate policy watchdog Climate Action Tracker.

The U.S. climate policy under President George W. Bush provided an excuse for Japanese inaction, as policymakers, when criticized, could always counter that the U.S. was being even more of a laggard. While the Obama administration was intent on exercising leadership in international climate politics, it refrained from seriously pressuring Japan to adopt more ambitious climate goals. Needless to say, there was no pressure under the environmentally destructive Trump administration either.

This is important because Japan’s foreign policy is notoriously receptive to U.S. pressure. So much so, in fact, that there is a Japanese word for such pressure from Washington: beiatsu. Due to Japan’s historical dependency on U.S. military protection, policymakers in Tokyo are extremely sensitive to American demands and interests. For political scientists, it is therefore almost unthinkable to try to explain Japanese foreign policy without accounting for the role of U.S. pressure. A lack of U.S. pressure to date has made it easy for Japan to approach climate change with little urgency.

Hopes of a more proactive Japanese climate policy were also dashed by the Fukushima nuclear disaster in March 2011. In response to the disaster and public outrage over the lack of nuclear safety, the government chose to shut down Japan’s nuclear plants. As the government struggles to restart nuclear power plants, it has turned to other sources to meet its energy needs. While some progress on renewable energy has been made since 2011, increasing from 9.5 to 18 percent of total electricity generation between 2010 and 2019, Japan remains highly dependent on coal, by far the dirtiest fossil fuel. In 2019, coal accounted for as much as 32 percent of Japan’s energy mix. A decade after the nuclear accident, it is about time Japan made some overdue readjustments to its energy and climate policy. 

One thing is different in 2021, and it could become a decisive factor: the Biden administration’s willingness to pressure other countries to tackle the climate crisis. In an analysis of Japan’s climate change discourse, we found that former Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide never spoke about climate change in Japanese parliamentary debates during the Trump presidency, but, anticipating pressure from the incoming Biden administration, he began discussing climate change as an issue that Japan and the United States should cooperate on. 

It turned out that Suga’s premonitions of U.S. pressure were warranted. During their first in-person meeting in the United States in April this year, Biden called on Japan to set an ambitious concrete emissions reduction target for 2030 so as to add substance to the 2050 carbon neutrality goal the Suga government had announced in 2020. At the Leaders Summit on Climate convened by Biden shortly thereafter, Suga announced that, by 2030, Japan would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 46 percent, aiming for 50 percent, compared to 2013 levels. In order to achieve this, the Japanese government recently upped its renewable energy targets from 22-24 to 36-38 percent by 2030. These targets marked overdue improvements to the lackluster targets Japan initially announced under the Paris Agreement in 2015. As a result, Climate Action Tracker upgraded Japan’s climate policy from “highly insufficient” to just “insufficient.”

The reason why the evaluation of Tokyo’s climate policy has not improved more, despite some positive developments, is Japan’s continued support of coal. The Japanese government is still planning to produce 19 percent of its electricity from coal by 2030. While the government last year decided to shut down roughly 100 older and inefficient coal power plants by 2030 and plans for new coal-fired power plants have been scrapped, plants currently under construction will be completed. That means Japan is unlikely to phase out coal anytime soon. 

In April, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that those countries continuing to rely on coal and invest in coal power plants “will hear from the U.S.” In fact, since Biden took office, the United States has been pressuring Japan to stop funding coal power projects abroad. According to an anonymous climate finance expert we spoke to, this mainly took place behind the scenes, meaning that U.S. pressure on Japanese coal policy has been far less open than its pressure on Japanese emission targets.

While Suga’s announcement at the G-7 meeting in June that Japan would end subsidies to overseas coal power projects should be welcomed, it came with a significant caveat: Japan will not terminate projects already underway and the announcement may not apply to what Japanese officials refer to as highly efficient coal power plants. The latter simply refers to new-generation coal power plants that burn coal more efficiently, but still emit enormous amounts of CO2, leaving a back door wide open for continued government support for overseas coal power projects. Japan remains far from making its coal policies compatible with the 1.5 degree Celsius Paris Agreement goal.  

Earlier this year, Biden and Suga promised to make “the climate crisis a pillar of the U.S.-Japan bilateral partnership” and “to make the necessary efforts to keep a 1.5 degree Celsius limit on warming within reach.” There is a window of opportunity for the U.S. and Japan to live up to their declared climate leadership ambitions, but it is closing rapidly due to the urgency of the “widespread, rapid, and intensifying” climate crisis. Like Japan, the Biden administration’s climate policies are still deemed “insufficient” by the Climate Action Tracker. In fact, the most recent E3G Coal Scorecard of G-7 countries’ coal policies respectively ranked the U.S. and Japan as number five and seven. Clearly, both countries have a long way to go. 

Less than a month before the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow in early November, the world will be watching Kishida’s and Biden’s actions on climate change. Kishida’s blissful ignorance of climate change may not last long as Biden will be sure to remind him of the promise made by his predecessor. This should include more overt pressure on Japan to stop building and financing coal power plants. Former Prime Minister Suga stated that “The United States is Japan’s best friend.” What are best friends for if not to tell you hard truths that need to be said?