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Why G7 climate leadership is on the line in Japan

Fossil fuel use could decline as soon as next year, but G7 proposals risk slowing the green transition.

By India Bourke

Sapporo, and Sapporo, and Sapporo… as Shakespeare might have said of events in Japan this week. Last summer in Germany, G7 leaders pledged to achieve a “fully or predominantly decarbonised power sector by 2035”. But fears of backsliding are building before this weekend’s meeting of the group’s energy and environment ministers in Sapporo, on the mountainous northern Japanese island Hokkaido.

Kishida Fumio, the Japanese prime minister, spurred on by his nation’s position as host, is playing fast and loose with the definition of “predominantly”. The latest draft version of the text, for instance, would approve investment for new natural gas, despite the International Energy Agency’s warning that all development of new oil and gas must cease.

Kishida is also spearheading a move to expand public financing for the development of technologies that support fossil fuels across Asia, such as “co-firing” coal power plants with hydrogen and ammonia. These would produce reduced emissions, but still at potentially dangerous levels. Finance for such technology would contravene the G7’s commitment to ending new direct public support for international unabated fossil fuel energy.

Energy security in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the oft-cited justification for weakening decarbonisation ambitions. Yet climate stability underpins all else. So-called decarbonising technologies, like ammonia co-firing, are risky distractions from viable zero-emissions options, notes the think tank E3G. “If you warn that the planet is burning down, but you then do very little at home, you’re not going to send a very inspiring signal to the rest of the world,” Alden Meyer, senior E3G associate, said of the G7’s current behaviour.

[See also: Would there still have been climate change under socialism?]

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Could the other nations of the G7 push to turn this situation around by Sunday? Building on its joint leadership of the Powering Past Coal Alliance, the UK is pushing for a firm deadline of 2030 for an end to the use of unabated coal to generate power. France, meanwhile, wants to tighten the language around ending fossil fuel finance to close a loophole that allows exceptions in “limited circumstances”. But there is resistance on both counts from other members, including from the US, which arguably has the greatest strategic leverage over Japan due to the countries’ security ties.

There is room for optimism. New findings from the think tank Ember’s Global Electricity Review, released on Wednesday 11 April, show that the transition to “sustainable and decarbonised” energy is developing quickly, with the growth of affordable wind and solar energy potentially pushing fossil fuels into decline as early as this year. In 2022 wind generation increased by 17 per cent – enough to power almost all the UK, the report notes.

Yet there is still a way to go, and the direction set by G7 nations matters. “Cynically, Japan is still taking the ‘predominantly’ decarbonised electricity system as over 50 per cent,” Dave Jones, Ember’s head of data insights, said, “and pathway after pathway shows it is capable of much more.”

Bring on tomorrow – and a better outcome in Sapporo this weekend.

[See also: Seven ways to make leaders act on climate change]

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