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21 July 2015 11:15

Japan’s 2030 climate pledge leaves room for coal expansion

Sophie Yeo


Sophie Yeo

21.07.2015 | 11:15am
COP21 ParisJapan’s 2030 climate pledge leaves room for coal expansion

Japan has finalised its emissions reductions pledge to the UN, targeting a 26% reduction below 2013 levels by 2030.

This goal was widely expected. The Japanese government proposed an early, informal version of the pledge, known as an “intended nationally determined contribution” ( INDC), in June. Despite a month of deliberations, the goals contained in this draft have not changed.

Japan’s INDC is closely tied to its long-term energy strategy out to 2030, written by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and published in Japanese on Thursday.

The government says that its 2030 emissions reductions targets are a “bottom-up calculation…based on the amount of domestic emission reductions and removals assumed to be obtained” by this strategy.

Japan’s energy history

Until recently, nuclear formed the bedrock of Japan’s energy supply, meaning that around 30% of its power was generated without emitting carbon dioxide.

That changed with the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Three of the plant’s six nuclear reactions went into meltdown after it was hit by a tsunami triggered by an earthquake. Following this, almost all of Japan’s nuclear reactions were either shut down or suspended. By 2014, Japan had gone from generating 29% of its electricity from nuclear to none at all.

Japan turned to fossil fuels to fill the gap, causing its emissions to rise. In 2013, Japan registered its highest rate of emissions to date, at 10.8% higher than they were in 1990. For comparison, the EU saw its emissions peak in 1979.

This caused Japan to backtrack on its 2020 pledge under the Copenhagen accord. Originally, Japan had said it would reduce its emissions by 25% on 1990 levels. In November 2013, the government announced it would instead target a reduction of 3.8% below 2005 levels – equivalent to an increase of 5.2% on 1990 levels.


The UN has not set guidelines on the base year that countries should choose for their emissions reductions targets. Japan’s decision to use 2013 is unusually late. For instance, the US, Canada and New Zealand have used 2005, while the EU chooses to make its reductions based on 1990 levels.

Japan’s 2030 target translates into a 25.4% reduction on 2005 levels, and around a 16% reduction on 1990 levels – lower than its initial 2020 Copenhagen pledge.

Japans -emissons -1990-2013

Source: Japan’s National Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Fiscal Year 2013, UNFCCC. Chart by Carbon Brief

This is weaker than the EU’s target of a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030 on 1990 levels, and the US target of a 26-28% reduction in emissions by 2025 on 2005 levels – although Jonathan Grant, head of sustainability and climate change at PwC, suggests Japan does need to decarbonise at a slightly faster rate than the EU and the US to hit its target.

Energy Mix

Japan has specified its plans for power generation in 2030 – a plan set out in more detail in its new long-term energy strategy (in Japanese). Following this pathway will lead to the 26% emissions reduction target, the INDC says.

The graph below sets out how Japan sees its electricity generation changing between now and 2030.


Source: Historic data the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, compiled by The National Bureau of Asian Research. 2030 projection from Japan’s INDC. Chart by Carbon Brief

Nuclear will once again provide a significant share of Japan’s power – between 20% and 22% by 2030. Renewables will also increase to between 22% and 24%. But while the share of both these low-carbon sources will increase, it comes at the expense of oil and gas, rather than coal, which the INDC says will still provide around 26% of power in 2030.

Japan says its total power generation will increase from its 2014 level of 800bn kilowatt hours (kWh) to around 1,065bn kWh in 2030.

This means that, since the share of coal in the power mix will remain steady, the actual volume of coal that Japan burns could increase by around 30% over the next 15 years. Japan currently has 52 new coal plants in the pipeline – enough to almost double its existing fleet.

The INDC further specifies how the 24% renewables portion of the power generation will look, as the graph below illustrates.

Renewable -pie

The projected make-up of Japan’s renewable energy sector in 2030, which will account for between 22 and 24% of total power generation. Source: Japan’s INDC. Chart by Carbon Brief


Japan has also indicated in its INDC exactly where and how it intends to reduce its emissions in order to make its 26% reduction target by 2030. This includes a selection of policies that it says will achieve the intended cuts. The following graph shows the volume of greenhouse gases Japan is proposing to reduce by 2030, compared to 2013.

Emissions -CO2

Source: Japan’s INDC. Chart by Carbon Brief

A further quirk of Japan’s emissions reduction strategy is that, by 2030, the emissions absorbed by Japan’s land use sector – including forestry, cropland and grazing land – will diminish by around a third.

In 2013, Japan’s land sector absorbed 61 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By 2030, it is predicted to remove only around 37 million tonnes. That is to say, Japan’s land use sector will still be a sink overall, but it will have less of a beneficial impact than before.

Nonetheless, the removals will still be counted as a contribution towards their target, as the 2013 baseline disregards land use emissions, making the starting point zero.


Source: UNFCCC data, Japan’s INDC. Chart by Carbon Brief 

Forest land accounts for the largest sink in Japan. In its 2013 biennial report to the UN’s climate body, Japan said that the declining trend in land use emissions removals was down to the “maturity of Japanese forests”.

Carbon credits

Japan is somewhat vague over the use of market mechanisms in its INDC. It demonstrates that its intended emissions reductions are achievable through domestic measures and says explicitly that its use of carbon credits is “not included as a basis of the bottom-up calculation of Japan’s emission reduction target”.

Nonetheless, it adds that emissions reductions achieved through its credits system, known as the Joint Crediting Mechanism, will be “appropriately counted”, and will add up to a cumulative 50-100m tonnes of CO2 by 2030.


In many respects, Japan has provided a clear and detailed INDC based around mitigation targets – particularly in light of the ambiguities contained in contributions received so far from other countries. Like other developed countries, it has not committed to action beyond this in areas such as adaptation and finance.

Nonetheless, that is unlikely to be enough to turn around Japan’s growing reputation as a climate laggard, cemented by its decision to renege on its Copenhagen pledge.

The INDC has been ranked as “inadequate” by climate change analysts at Climate Action Tracker. This is reinforced by the potential for coal to grow up to 2030, and an overall target that is weaker than other developed countries and blocs, such as the EU and the US.

Main image: Mount Fuji in the Autumn.
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