Japan will have to tread a unique pathway to net zero, but it can get there through innovation and investment

An abridged version of this article was first published in Japanese by Nikkei.

Japan’s commitments to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 46% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 are among the world’s most commendable climate targets, given the unique challenges the country faces.

Meeting them will not be easy. Unlike many other countries Japan does not have an abundance of renewable energy resources and its high population density, mountainous terrain and steep shorelines represent serious barriers to scaling up the ones it does have, particularly as many of its few flatlands are already heavily covered by solar panels. It has been leading the world in energy efficiency for decades, so much of the potential offered by this quick and effective way of decarbonizing the economy has already been realized. Japan has already made great progress in cutting energy consumption through behavioral and lifestyle changes, such as using less air conditioning in the summer and favoring public transport. And its geology is not conducive to carbon storage, a technology set to play a significant role in some other parts of the world.

So where should Japan turn?

Efforts first need to focus on getting the most out of existing technologies and assets, as many of other options that can achieve vital additional reductions still need time to mature. Energy efficiency can still be pushed even further, and the deployment of renewables can be accelerated. There is also a role for nuclear power. Japan has made enormous progress in the ten years since the Fukushima Daiichi accident. I had the opportunity to visit the site and continue to closely follow the progress that is being made, including in terms of decommissioning, the introduction of stricter safety standards and the creation of a new regulatory authority. Restarting existing nuclear reactors in Japan that pass safety reviews would be a cost-effective way to quickly reduce emissions and strengthen the security of electricity supplies. For these reasons, the pathway set out in the IEA’s new report – Net Zero by 2050: a Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector – sees Japan’s nuclear power generation growing steadily. 

Over the longer term, a broader suite of new technologies will be needed for Japan to continue towards net zero. Fortunately, this plays to the country’s strengths, as it has long been a global leader in energy innovation through technologies such as hybrid electric vehicles, solar PV, smart grids, high speed trains and robotics. Offshore wind looks particularly promising, although Japan will need to help push the frontiers of what is possible to reap the major benefits it offers. The largest offshore wind project in the world today, currently under development off the coast of the United Kingdom, will produce the equivalent of just 2% of Japan’s electricity demand. Plus, the project is in the shallow waters of the North Sea, a setting not available off Japan’s coastlines where the ocean floor plunges precipitously. To compensate, Japan needs to further develop and help drive down the cost of floating bases for offshore wind, which could set the country up as a global leader and establish new industrial clusters.

Japan’s efforts to develop low-carbon fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia should remain priorities and could open up important export opportunities in industries of the future. I was honored when former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called on the IEA in 2019 to contribute to efforts being spearheaded by Japan to help the world move closer to realizing hydrogen’s clean energy potential. Today, I am very pleased to see these efforts are starting to bear fruit. Japan is now the clear front runner in making hydrogen a globally traded commodity, with the establishment of the first trade route between Australia and Japan. I am looking forward to joining Hiroshi Kajiyama, Japan's Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, in October for the Hydrogen Energy Ministerial to see how we can build on this encouraging momentum by speeding up technological developments to drive down costs and make hydrogen even more competitive with fossil fuels.

It is fantastic to see that Japan is now also providing similar leadership on ammonia, which is another very promising carbon-free fuel, particularly for power plants and shipping. Ammonia could help Japan speed up its move away from coal-fired electricity and play a role in decarbonizing other Asian economies, which currently have fast-growing electricity demand and heavy reliance on coal.

New nuclear plants could also help Japan reach net-zero emissions, particularly as its existing fleet will be largely decommissioned by 2050. The IEA’s Net Zero Roadmap envisages new nuclear reactors being built in Japan and calls on policy makers to consider both conventional light water reactors and new technologies such as small modular reactors in their long-term planning. Given the uncertainties surrounding nuclear power, the report also looked at what would be needed if its use was curtailed. While it would still be possible to get to net zero, the numbers call for careful reflection: if Japan relied on solar PV and batteries instead, an additional land area equivalent to 12 times the entire Tokyo metropolitan region would need to be covered by solar panels, and storage capacity equivalent to 40 times the world’s current largest battery project would need to be built.

Despite the unique constraints facing Japan, I am convinced that it still has a narrow but achievable pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050. It is unlikely to follow the same route as other countries – as the IEA’s Global Roadmap points out, each country will need to chart its own course while cooperating and coordinating with others. Japan has the opportunity to find its way by building on its strong track record of innovation and its favorable financial conditions that are conducive to stimulating investment in clean energy. The journey to net zero can help drive Japan’s future economic growth, including in remote areas, and improve its energy security. And importantly, this journey will mean Japan is playing its part in global efforts to successfully avert the most damaging consequences of climate change.

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This special report is the world’s first comprehensive study of how to transition to a net zero energy system by 2050 while ensuring stable and affordable energy supplies, providing universal energy access, and enabling robust economic growth.

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