A big policy battle is heating up in Tokyo as ministries and business leaders consider what needs to be done to fulfil Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s promise of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.


Addressing 40 world leaders at the virtual Leaders' Summit on Climate on 22nd April, PM Suga said that Japan would take a leadership role on climate change by striving to hit what he called "one of the world’s most ambitious targets."

Japan’s new target is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 46% by 2030 from 2013 levels. The new target certainly represents a sharp upgrade from July 2015, when Japan pledged to cut its CO2 emissions by 26%, but experts say it’s still not enough for Tokyo to achieve its goal of hitting net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Douglas Perkins, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Japan is the world’s sixth-biggest emitter, responsible for 3.2% of CO2 emissions. While this puts it a long way behind China, the United States, and the EU, the world's biggest polluters, Japan's contribution to global heating is far from negligible.

At the Leaders' Summit on Climate, PM Suga emphasized that his government would prioritize the expansion of renewable energy, which does not rely on fossil fuels for generating electricity, and energy saving.

The day after the summit, Industry Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama said that Japan would raise the contribution made by renewable, hydro and nuclear power to more than 50% of total electricity production by 2030.

To achieve that, the government will have to double the amount of renewable electricity Japan produced in 2019. The current basic energy policy from 2018 aims to derive 20-22% of power from nuclear and 22-24% from renewables by 2030.

A map showing the location of Japan's nuclear power plants. | kbegemot, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Minister Kajiyama acknowledged that the government expects to face stiff opposition from vested interests. When PM Suga pledged to end sales of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) issued its “Green Growth” agenda, in which it redefined 'electric cars' to include hybrids. In the runup to the Leaders' Summit on Climate, METI said it wanted Japan to up its planned cut in carbon emissions by just 35%.

There are similar splits in the business world. For the time being, it would appear that the 200 leading companies in the Japan Climate Initiative have won the battle. In the runup to the Leaders' Summit on Climate, they had been calling on the government to reduce emissions by 45-50%, which would put Japan more in line with the targets set by the E.U. and the U.S.

PM Suga has pledged a fundamental reversal of policy on coal. He has yet to give any details, but METI wants to keep coal at 26% of Japan’s electricity production, and Keidanren, Japan's main business lobby, has also been pushing to retain coal production.

Most commentators believe that PM Suga is genuinely concerned about the importance of reducing Japan's carbon emissions. What is in question is just how much power he has to get his way. METI and Keidanren are powerful players, and Suga's polling numbers are not strong enough to allow him to force the issue.

All the same, growing numbers of people in the corporate world are in favour of taking decisive action, and their case has only been bolstered by the election of Joe Biden, who has made tough action on reducing carbon emissions a central plank of his administration.



1. "Japan's Looming Climate Showdown" (Richard Katz, Foreign Affairs, April 21st, 2021
2. "Japan’s new emissions goals a step forward but not enough to hit 2050 target" (Osamu Tsukimori, Japan Times, April 23, 2021)

By - George Lloyd.