an ammonia tank in the foreground at JERA’s Hekinan thermal power station in Hekinan, central Japan
An ammonia-fired power plant in Hekinan. Production of the fuel currently relies on fossil fuels and is not yet commercially viable © Yuka Obayashi/Reuters

Four weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in February 2022, Japan proposed an initiative that it hoped would bring Asian countries together to tackle climate goals without sacrificing economic growth.

Then, when the war upended energy markets and forced Germany and other European Union nations to reactivate their mothballed coal plants, officials in Tokyo quietly became more bullish about a regional effort to address global warming.

“For Asia, we need to have as many options as possible on energy for their stable supply,” argued prime minister Fumio Kishida in March, as Japan hosted the first ministerial meeting with Australia and south-east Asian countries on the climate initiative, known as Asia Zero Emission Community. “That is why it is crucial to advance a realistic path for energy transition.”

The thrust of Tokyo’s argument is that Asia — which accounts for roughly half of global carbon emissions and is home to the world’s youngest generation of coal power plants — faces environmental challenges that are distinct from those of Europe or North America, and therefore the pace of its transition to meet climate targets should be different, as well.

This position, according to some Japanese officials, was reinforced after the Ukraine crisis sparked a global debate about how quickly countries should shift to cleaner forms of energy. Germany, for example, has temporarily restarted coal power plants and held discussions with Senegal about fossil fuel exploration.

Asia’s claim to be in a “unique situation” is based on the fact that its economies are at an earlier stage of development than those in the west, and that its fossil fuel infrastructure is closer to the start than the end of its life, compared with the US and Europe. And it is shaping Japan’s stance on climate discussions as global leaders head into the G7 summit. But it is already proving divisive at a time when the world’s most advanced economies are having to respond to criticisms that they are backtracking on their climate targets following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Critics say that Tokyo’s attempt to shape energy transition efforts in Asia appears self-serving, and is simply an extension of its previous argument that Japan should be treated differently because of the circumstances caused by the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster. That forced the country to increase its reliance on coal, natural gas and oil.

A test facility making hydrogen from renewable energy in Fukushima, near the site of the 2011 nuclear disaster © AFP via Getty Images

Energy and environment ministers of the G7 countries have now pledged to accelerate their shift to renewable energy. Member nations also committed “to achieving a fully or predominantly decarbonised power sector by 2035”, but once again failed to set a firm timeline to exit from coal amid continuing opposition from host nation Japan.

“In the G7 meeting, we acknowledged that different countries around the world have various economic and energy situations, and the path to carbon neutrality by 2050 should be diverse,” said Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japan’s minister of economy, trade and industry, after the ministerial meeting in the northern city of Sapporo, in April.

In fact, fraught negotiations ahead of the Sapporo meeting exposed sharp divisions within the G7, with the UK, France and Canada pushing back against Japan’s promotion of ammonia as a low-carbon energy source alongside gas or coal to reduce emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure.

Although ammonia, itself, is not a greenhouse gas, its production relies heavily on fossil fuels and is not yet commercially viable.

However, the promotion of ammonia and hydrogen as emission reduction tools is a pillar of Kishida’s $1.1tn climate strategy, known as GX, which officials want to feature heavily when Japan chairs the G7 summit this weekend. These are also technologies Japan wants to sell to countries in the Global South to help them replace coal at existing power plants with ammonia.

Environmental groups are still hoping that the G7 will take bolder steps, though, rather than letting Japan push for its domestic agenda. They want a commitment to the targets in the Paris agreement, which says countries will seek to limit global temperature rises to less than 2C, and ideally to 1.5C.

“At the minimum, I hope they will not backslide on the pledges made at the ministerial level,” says Kimiko Hirata, executive director and founder of Climate Integrate, a non-profit group.

Following the Sapporo meeting, people with knowledge of the discussions said Germany was insisting on wording in the final communiqué that supported public investment in the gas sector — drawing opposition from other member states who said that was incompatible with climate goals.

Hirata says she is paying attention to whether the G7 will be able to remove the word “predominantly” from its commitment to a decarbonised power sector by 2035, which would eliminate the possibility of continued use of fossil fuel-fired power.

“It’s extremely important for the G7 leaders to go one step further to reach an ambitious agreement in order to advance discussions with developing countries at the upcoming G20 summit and COP28 [climate summit in the UAE],” she argues.

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