We went to Japan this summer, and it’s an amazing place (see my Japan In 20 photos post).

On climate though, Japan seems asleep at the wheel.

But that could change. Economically mighty Japan could not only decarbonize itself, but become a major accelerator of global decarbonization… and grow its economy in the process.

Here’s how.

First, the bad news.

Japan’s has the third or fourth largest economy in the world (around $5T). And it’s the third or fourth largest exporter in the world… in both cases neck and neck with Germany.

But it’s also the climate laggard of the G7, furthest behind on its 2030 emissions goals and with plans relying heavily on unproven carbon capture, ammonia and hydrogen technologies to keep burning fossil fuels for decades (vs. replacing them with renewables). Japan’s current prime minister is backtracking on his predecessor’s climate goals, and Japan has refused to commit to bringing its coal usage to zero.

Furthermore, Japan’s world-leading car companies, like Toyota, have been slow-walking electrification, only recently (and unconvincingly) conceding they’ll need to build EVs to stay competitive with Chinese and Korean automakers, and Tesla.

Almost 80% of Japan’s energy comes from fossil fuels (source: the Japanese government).

Why does Japan continue to double down on fossil fuels? Some ideas:

  • Energy security: Japan’s been nervous about energy security ever since the oil shocks of the 1970s, and only got more so after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, which forced it to shut down most of its nuclear plants. Japan can currently only produce 11 percent of its energy needs without imported fuel.
  • Japan’s conservative (and very male) political leadership. They’re risk-averse, and revert to what they know (e.g. fossil fuels).
  • Sunk costs: Since 2011, Japan has constructed forty new coal plants… nearly a quarter of its total coal fleet.
  • Fossil profits: Japan Inc. makes tons of money off fossil fuel technologies (e.g. gas cars and trucks, building fossil plants etc), and doesn’t want that ‘disrupted’ by decarbonization.
  • Don’t-make-waves culture: There’s little climate activism in Japan. I found one activist group, but almost no ongoing visible protests.

Photo break: some photos from our trip.

Climate-related of course.

Japan’s extensive hydrocarbon infrastructure is visible wherever you go.

Japan generates an enormous amount of packaging waste. Even small items are often double and triple wrapped in paper and/or plastic, like this cream puff we bought (but quickly regretted).

Japan burns 80% of its trash (it goes up in carbon). And Japanese companies have gotten so good at building mega-scale urban waste incinerators, they’re exporting them all over the world.

Severe weather’s on the rise in Japan; here lighting struck a very old tree in Tokyo; The unusual extreme weather in the past few years has included heat waves, torrential rains, floods and mudslides.

Now, the good news.

Not only is it possible for Japan to decarbonize itself faster, but with its sheer scale, it could help the whole world decarbonize faster. If Japan went all in on climate tech, it could drive global costs way down and volume way up (and probably make lots of money doing it).

Japan’s already getting back into the global semiconductor leadership game, with billions of dollars in government subsidies. It’s already called for a massive investment surge in battery manufacturing to keep up with China and South Korea (and Panasonic and Toshiba already have a head start). It’s already a world leader in heat pumps via companies like Daikin and Mitsubishi. And it was an early innovator in solar, so has renewables DNA.

But Japan’s biggest climate asset may be cultural: the ability to act with a single mind when it wants to.

Japan’s world leadership in trains is a great example of this. Japan has the world’s leading train network, from the fastest intercity trains (Shinkansen) to the most efficient local subways. Its all-electric trains are notoriously on time to the second, and it dwarfs every other country in passenger trips per year while coming in third behind only China and India in trip-kilometers per year.

In 1964, the very first Shinkansen made the Tokyo/Osaka run in four hours, at speeds up to 135 miles per hour. Sixty years later, the U.S. can still only run trains at that speed for short distances (the Shinkansen today is up to 200 mph). But more important than speed, this rail network has defined modern Japan, linking its cities and enabling their growth and economic vitality.

This kind of world leadership didn’t just happen. It came from decades of ‘acting with a single mind’ to prioritize rail development and innovation. Decades of consistent, coordinated government and private sector investment in passenger rail and infrastructure. And a gutsy decision in the 1950s to rip out existing rail lines and build all-new ones designed specifically for superfast intercity trains, with the belief that this investment would powerfully enable economic growth and development (it did).

So, Japan… please attack decarbonization like you did transportation!

Japan’s opportunity today is to bet big on decarbonization, just like it did on trains; to muster the conviction that going all in on these technologies will yield a big economic payoff for Japanese society.

Specifically, Japan should:

  • ‘Act with a single mind’ to drive a much faster rollout of domestic renewables (utility scale and rooftop solar, wind, and batteries) and coal plant shutdowns. A recent study by Lawrence Berkeley Lab says this is both possible and would save money.
  • Up the ante on existing government incentives, and create new ones, for Japanese and foreign investment in Japan Decarbonization Inc.
  • Stop investing in money-losing technologies to prolong the life of fossil fuels (ammonia, hydrogen, carbon capture, coal to gas conversions, hybrid powertrains etc). Put that money into decarbonization instead.
  • Push Japan’s big automakers to ramp up their investment in EVs and EV supply chains. This is the only way Japan can prevent China from displacing it as the world’s biggest auto exporter.
  • Convince talented young people to go work on decarbonization, and then get out of their way. We met a young engineer from Nissan working on V2X technologies on our trip. He said bottoms-up climate innovation is happening in Japan, but too often gets quashed by top execs in Japan’s conglomerates.
  • Make the political case that decarbonizing faster will make Japan more energy-secure.
  • Make the political case that being a leader in decarbonization will make Japan more globally competitive, able to surpass Korea and Germany and keep up with the U.S. and China.

That’s the optimistic recipe… Japan has done it before, and can do it again!

To learn more about Japan and climate:

Here’s a great weekly newsletter I found on LinkedIn, which summarizes the best media articles on Japan and climate each week. Hiroyasu “ichi” Ichikawa, who curates the newsletter, does a great job staying on top of everything you need to know!

P.S. A few more trip photos:

A hopeful sign you see everywhere in Japan: rooftop and small-scale community solar projects are a common sight in the countryside and from the train.

Heat pumps are everywhere in Japan; they’re proud of them. See my post “The Japanese Art of Heat Pumps” for more heat pump condenser pics.

Japan’s big cities prioritize transit, walking and biking (e.g. with convenient bike parking lots). The Japanese own fewer cars per capita than Americans, and crucially drive those cars only a third as much as Americans.

The Japanese are into recycling: bottle and can recycling bins are everywhere. And there’s more creative approaches too, like making chopsticks from broken baseball bats (we bought some)!

A subway ad touting Japan’s technological prowess.

Trains built modern Japan, and Japan is proud of them.

Japan’s Shinkansen trains aren’t just crazy fast, they also come every few minutes.

Video ads for heat pumps play constantly on the Tokyo subway.