Yoshihide Suga’s Green Approach to Japanese Diplomacy

Diplomacy & international actors

Japan recently pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The swift decision falls in line with similar recent pledges by other countries in the region, but surprised many experts nonetheless. It can be assumed that Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s newly-elect Prime Minister, saw an opportunity to expand Japan’s diplomatic agenda and become a sustainable role model for the rest of Asia.

When the news broke at the end of October that Japan aimed to become a “decarbonised society” by 2050 (it remains unclear which greenhouse gases will be the prime targets and which lesser), it drew many an astonished face. Japan, after all, is the world’s fifth-largest emitter in greenhouse gases and has been so far criticized for inaction. Suga’s decision has now propelled his government to the forefront of the largest industrial nations combatting climate change: the European Union, the US (when Biden assumes office) and other leading nations also have plans of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

Apart from wishing to not fall behind China, its economic and political contestant, which promised a month earlier to become carbon neutral by 2060, it can be assumed that further pressuring factors also contributed to Suga’s decision to properly jump-start this project. Under the Abe administration, progress on climate was, despite all promises, slow at best; domestic and international critiques were getting louder and, furthermore, the milestone Glasgow Climate Change Conference is coming up in November 2021.

However, many lack trust in the realisation of Suga’s ambitions, citing the country’s high reliance on coal-powered energy and reckoning “It’s like shooting for the stars“. Setting the difficulty of this task aside, it is worthwhile analysing the indirect benefits Suga intended by his announcement.

First, it is part of Japan’s climate pledge that it will prioritise research into new technologies, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) or “high efficiency coal power generation”, to decrease its emissions. Although Japan has recently “fallen behind international rivals” (EU, US, etc.) on research, this is a demonstration of Suga’s willingness to assume a leading technological role in the worldwide combat against climate change.

Taking these developments one step further, such newly attained scientific knowledge would enable Japan to aid other countries across Asia, as well as beyond, in decreasing their own carbon emissions. This would allow it to not only alleviate its own carbon statistics (since, technically, Japan would nullify the countries’ emissions) and edge closer to its ultimate goal, but also foster the image that Suga’s administration is a goodwilled and serious international actor in the climate scene.

Strong friendships can form by mutually cooperating on such critical topics. Through good business deals and a sustainable outcome, both parties would be set to win. Especially in LDCs that will be hit hardest by a warming climate, a proactive assistance by Japan could spark long-lasting trust and friendship. Such positive experiences may bear influence on diplomatic relations and pave the way for further cooperation in the future. An example found on Japan’s Foreign Minsitry website paints a gleeful picture of technological cooperation with Pacific island nations.

Suga’s government does have some obstacles to master in the meantime, however. The impeccable timing presented in his plan is heavily dependent on progress made in research into reducing carbon emissions succeeding. Without this technology, business deals cannot be struck and Japan cannot retain its carbon neutrality pledge. Furthermore, other countries, such as neighbouring South Korea, are following a very similar path and may end up as competitors in the field. Suga also faces pressure from his domestic voters to see his carbon neutrality pledge through to the end–it would be an understatement to reckon that Japan’s new Prime Minister is walking a tightrope.

By placing a decent bet on the positive outcome of this plan, Yoshihide Suga hopes to embody a durable solution for his country’s future position in the world. His watershed declaration constitutes a swing toward a green and sustainable pillar of Japanese diplomacy that is unprecedented in its foreign policy. If successful, he would be celebrated as a pioneer and the Japanese people could profit immensely from decreased pollution and a healthier economy. If not, Suga will be treated as a victim of his own ambition and, unless he has an entire array of further major announcements right around the corner, seen as similarly lacklustre to his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.

Photo by Brian Garrity (Unsplash)