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Japan's net zero by 2050 pledge another warning to Australia on fossil fuels, analysts say

Adam Morton Environment editor
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP

A pledge by Japan to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 underscores the risk facing Australia if it fails to prepare for the inevitable shift in the global economy and falling demand for fossil fuels, analysts say.

The new Japanese prime minister, Yoshihide Suga announced the target in his first policy speech to national parliament since taking office last month. He said responding to the climate crisis was no longer a constraint on growth, and proactive measures to change the country’s industrial structure would expand the economy.

Japan is the biggest market for Australia’s thermal coal and gas exports, buying more than 40% of each. Suga’s announcement follows China saying it would reach “carbon neutrality” no later than 2060.

He did not provide details of how net zero would be reached, but said he would promote renewable energy, prioritise safety while seeking a bigger role for nuclear power and “fundamentally change Japan’s long-term reliance on coal-fired energy”.

Its national energy plan is due to be revised next year. Scientists with Climate Action Tracker have previously found the country’s climate plans, including its short-term commitments over the next decade, were “highly insufficient”.

Related: By 2020 standards, Angus Taylor's low-emissions technology statement is not really a climate policy | Adam Morton

Australian climate analysts said it was further evidence a shift was under way and the Morrison government – which has resisted calls to set a mid-century target and prepare fossil fuel communities for life after coal – should take notice.

Howard Bamsey, Australia’s former special envoy on climate change, said Japan’s pledge illustrated major trading partners were changing their industrial profiles.

“It’s another signal to Australia that we need to get our act together and have a real strategy, not another of these roadmaps that don’t offer direction,” he said. “What matters here is the economic pressure. The world is changing and we need to be part of that change.”

Erwin Jackson, the director of policy with the Investor Group on Climate Change, said Japan’s announcement confirmed what “we’ve known for some time” – that the transition to net zero emissions would happen. He said the 2050 goal had been backed by business groups, investors and the community.

“The core reason Australia isn’t prepared for that is the toxic politics around climate change over the past decade,” he said.

Jackson said major investors were already “running an aggressive carbon-risk ruler” over investment decisions, and the announcements by east Asia’s largest economies would only accelerate that.

More than 60% of Australia’s two-way trade was now with countries pushing for net zero emissions by or near mid-century. That would rise to more than 70% if Joe Biden became US president, he said.

“It’s a really great opportunity for Australia that we should be grabbing,” Jackson said.

The US’s direction on the climate crisis hinges on next week’s elections. Biden has promised $2tn over four years for clean programs and to set the country on a course of net zero emissions by 2050. A Donald Trump victory would lock in his abolition of climate programs and the US’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement for at least another four years.

Europe, Australia’s other major trading partner, signalled earlier this month that it would escalate its climate commitments when the EU parliament supported a goal of a 60% cut below 1990 levels by 2030 on the way to net zero by mid-century.

Related: China's surprise climate pledge leaves Australia 'naked in the wind', analysts say

The Morrison government’s central commitment under the global climate pact is a minimum 26% cut in emissions below 2005 levels by 2030 – less than the 45-60% reduction recommended by scientists. A government forecast last year suggested it was not on track to meet its goal without using controversial carbon accounting measures.

Labor’s climate spokesman, Mark Butler, said Japan’s commitment was “hugely significant” and “great news for global action on climate change.

“The list of groups who don’t support net zero by 2050 gets smaller and smaller and at the top of the list is Scott Morrison’s government,” he said. “It’s up to Scott Morrison to explain why he won’t commit to a climate target that every state and territory government in Australia, over 73 other nations and now Japan have adopted.”

A spokesperson for the emissions reduction minister, Angus Taylor, said the government’s policy was to achieve net zero emissions in the second half of the century. They said this was consistent with the Paris agreement.

Some climate experts disagree on the basis the agreement also says countries will pursue efforts to limiting global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, and that commitments should be informed by the latest science.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change subsequently found, in a report commissioned in Paris, that global emissions needed to be 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050 to limit warming to 1.5C. It found staying within 2C heating would require net zero by 2070, but the impact of that would be far worse.

Taylor’s spokesperson did not directly answer a question about what Japan’s shift could mean for Australia’s exports, but said technological process was the only way to achieve the Paris goals while keeping economies strong.

They said Australia and Japan were taking practical action to accelerate new technologies, such as hydrogen. “Australia’s ambition is to be a global leader in low emissions technology solutions,” they said.