【News】Does the rest of the world really approve of Japan’s hydrogen/ammonia strategy?

Around the time of the G7 Climate, Energy, and Environment Ministers’ Meeting (Environment Ministers’ Meeting) held in Sapporo, Japan, on April 15-16, Japan’s energy strategy – specifically, its decarbonization strategy – became the subject of many media reports. Given that climate change is the main cause of recent giant typhoons and temperature rise, how countries tackle climate change is a pressing issue, not just for Japan, but for the entire world. Therefore, it can be said that the discussions that took place at the Environment Ministers’ Meeting related to the economic and industrial structural changes necessary to combat climate change will have a profound impact on all of our lives.

Considering the urgency of the issue, the G7 must work together to promote climate measures. However, the G7 Environment Ministers’ Meeting, co-chaired by Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) Yasutoshi Nishimura and Environment Minister Akihiro Minister Nishimura, highlighted the gap between Japan’s views and those of the G6.

The G7 Climate, Energy and Environment Ministers’ Communiqué covered a wide range of topics in its 92 paragraphs. Below is a summary of the gaps in Japan’s fossil fuel-free policy and hydrogen/ammonia strategy, and how they are viewed by the other G6 countries.

Background: Recognition at the G7 Environment Ministers’ Meeting of science-based climate targets

Based on March 2023’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) Synthesis Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) it is clear that GHG emissions must be reduced 60% from 2019 levels by 2035 in order to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to within 1.5℃. Regarding this, the G7 Climate, Energy and Environment Ministers’ Communiqué stated, “We highlight the increased urgency to reduce global GHG emissions by around 43 percent by 2030 and 60 percent by 2035, relative to the 2019 level, in light of the latest findings of the IPCC.” (Paragraph 44)

GAP 1 : Fossil fuel phase-out deadline

One of the focal points of this year’s G7 Environment Ministers’ Meeting was reaching an agreement for a timeline of a phase-out of coal-fired power plants. Regarding the decarbonization of the power sector by 2035, it is reported that while countries other than Japan insisted that “fully or predominantly” should be deleted from the description and only “fully” should be used, Japan was intent on leaving “predominantly” in place. Additionally, although the UK and Canada requested the inclusion of a rapid phase-out of coal-fired power generation due to it being the power source with the largest amount of CO2 emissions, Japan was strongly opposed to this. As a result, acceleration of the phase-out of coal power generation was agreed with the condition that it be consistent with the 1.5°C goal, but a timeline for a coal power phase-out was not specified. (Paragraph 66)

GAP 2 : Japan’s insistence on promoting hydrogen/ammonia co-firing technology 

Another significant topic during the summit was the promotion of fuel hydrogen/ammonia in the power sector. Some have interpreted this as an acceptance of the use of fossil fuel -based power generation as long as measures are taken to reduce CO2 emissions, but hydrogen and ammonia co-firing is not viewed by other countries as a “flexible response” as claimed by the Japanese government and some media. The UK and Canada had questioned Japan’s so-called “innovative technologies” even before the G7 Environment Ministers’ Meeting, and former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, noted in his interview that co-firing hydrogen/ammonia with fossil fuels could cause serious problems and pose significant challenges. Regarding the use of ammonia in the power sector, the UK, France, and other countries requested to remove mentions of fuel ammonia, but Japan’s opposition to this resulted in the inclusion of the ambiguous expression “hydrogen and its derivatives such as ammonia”. G6 countries raised concerns that hydrogen/ammonia co-firing would not accelerate the transition toward a decarbonized society, but would instead hinder the transition or postpone measures to address the problems that should be solved as soon as possible. The innovative technologies Japan calls “zero-emission thermal power” that are at the heart of Japan’s decarbonization policy, is not an accepted practice in the eyes of the world, as it leads to the preservation and continuation of coal-fired power generation.

GAP 3 : Gas as a decarbonization solution

Presidential Envoy Kerry also expressed concern that gas, which emits less CO2 than coal, was being highlighted as a decarbonization solution. After the Meeting, METI Minister Nishimura tweeted that “we agreed on the appropriateness of investing in the natural gas sector”, but Kerry and other countries’ representatives expressed a different perception, emphasizing that “phasing out fossil fuels” was included in the communiqué. The communiqué states, “We underline our commitment, in the context of a global effort, to accelerate the phase-out of unabated fossil fuels so as to achieve net zero in energy systems” (Paragraph 49), and “We stress that fossil fuel subsidies are inconsistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement” (Paragraph 73). The Japanese government sees these sentences to be “agreed upon”, but only because the government has interpreted it in a manner that suits it. 

GAP 4 : Perception gap on nuclear power generation

Another major perception gap between countries was on the subject of nuclear power generation. Japan includes the maximum use of nuclear power as part of its GX (Green Transformation) Basic Policy and has expressed a positive attitude for the new construction, expansion and reconstruction of nuclear power plants. The US, Canada, UK, and France have also shown similar policies of utilizing nuclear power. On the other hand, Italy has already closed all of its nuclear power plants, and Germany has recently completed its nuclear power phase-out (announced on April 15). The communiqué states that “Those countries that opt to use nuclear energy recognize its potential to provide affordable low-carbon energy that can reduce dependence on fossil fuels, to address the climate crisis and to ensure global energy security as a source of baseload energy and grid flexibility.” (Paragraph 70). Importantly, the G7 countries are not aligned on this issue, and therefore it cannot be said that Japan’s promotion of nuclear power is “welcomed”.

Japan insists that “there are many pathways toward decarbonization,” but if it is serious about reaching the 60% reduction goal by 2035, there is no time to wait for developing technologies that aren’t even expected to be commercialized until the 2040s. By resisting the agreement and promoting a misguided decarbonization strategy based on self-serving interpretations of the communiqué, Japan will delay its climate change measures, which may have significant impacts on its economy and industrial activities. Japan must focus its investments on expanding and reducing the costs of existing technologies, such as renewables.

Referenced media

・Japan’s coal tech for Asia questioned by U.K. and Canada(Nikkei Asia
・Why G7 climate leadership is on the line in Japan(New Statesman
・Japan’s Natural Gas Dependence: A Liability For the G7(Energy Tracker Asia

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・【News】Progress on decarbonization made at G7 ministerial meeting, but Japan blocks ambitious action on coal phase-out (Link)