Energy transition in East Asia fails to meet carbon neutral pledges


Both Japan and South Korea have announced that they would become carbon neutral by 2050. However, neither country has a clear roadmap or specific policies to attain this target. And, in fact, both governments are pursuing policies that are inconsistent with their pledges. 

Activists staged protest against Japan's export of coal power plant ahead of G20 Osaka Summit.
Teaser Image Caption
Activists staged protest against Japan's export of coal power plant ahead of 2019 G20 Osaka Summit.

Pie in the sky? 

Amid pressure from international society, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced on 26 October, 2020, that Japan, with the world’s third-largest economy, would become carbon neutral by 2050. Two days later South Korea also pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050, in keeping with recent global commitments to tackle climate change.

However, neither country has a clear roadmap or specific policies to attain this target. In fact, both governments are pursuing policies that are inconsistent with their pledges.  For example, in Japan, after the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster, the country prioritized economic over environmental recovery. During recent elections, energy policy has not been widely discussed. Many people are reluctant to address environmental issues, believing the rhetoric of the Japanese government and utility companies that nuclear and fossil fuels are cheap, while renewable energies are both expensive and unreliable. 

In contrast, European countries have been talking about raising the target for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 60% by 2030. Many already have plans to phase out coal power generation, including financial compensation for coal-related industries. Although energy transition is under way in east Asian countries, they lag behind European countries by five to 10 years.

Green New Deals are not alleviating dependence on coal 

In response to economic losses and rising unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, in July 2020 the South Korean government issued a five-year national strategic plan (2020-2025) called the Korean New Deal. The plan has three components, dubbed the Digital New Deal, the Green New Deal and the Stronger Safety Net. 

Among these, the Green New Deal has received the most investment. According to the South Korean government, it will help South Korea achieve its goal of shifting from a high-carbon economy to a low-carbon economy through transition to green infrastructure, low-carbon and decentralized energy, and innovation in green industries.

South Korea’s Green New Deal focuses on the development of green industries. Expanding the use of renewable energy and electric vehicles (EVs) are its two core components. The South Korean government is expected to invest US$7.8 billion and $11.1 billion respectively in these two areas by 2025.

However, the policy only sets targets for investment and jobs in these areas, without detailed specifications on their energy mix or GHG emissions reduction. 

It also lacks a commitment to, and timeline for, phasing out coal-fired power plants. South Korea is highly dependent on coal and currently has about 60 coal-fired power plants in operation, which accounted for 40% of national power generation in 2019, while renewable energy only accounted for 6.5%, the lowest among OECD countries. South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently announced that 10 coal-fired power plants will be closed by the end of 2022 and another 20 by 2034. However, seven new coal power projects remain under construction as of 2020. South Korea’s Green New Deal does not mention stopping funding for domestic and overseas coal projects, which runs counter to the country’s climate commitment. 

Japan is even worse. The Japanese government's current Strategic Energy Plan, which has been revised every three years, states its reliance on nuclear and coal-fired power generation. For this reason the government has been reluctant to encourage renewable energy production and energy conservation, and maintains the existing monopolies of energy companies. Although the Japanese government decided in July 2020 to discontinue inefficient coal-fired power plants, it has allowed the maintenance and construction of new coal power plants that are more efficient. The installed capacity of coal power generation has only declined by about 20%, suggesting the government’s reluctance to take a new, forward-looking attitude towards the country’s energy policy. 

On top of that, the Japanese government is now introducing a “capacity market", as an incentive to maintain the current conventional power generation system, which will subsidize the existing nuclear and coal power plants at the expense of higher electricity prices.  This new market will certainly hinder the energy transition in Japan.

Specific roadmaps to 2030 and 2050 are necessary

The climate change debate is politicized in east Asian countries, just as in the United States. For example, in South Korea, the conservative party and media have criticised the Moon government’s post-nuclear policy and have highlighted problems surrounding renewable energy, such as mega-solar projects that caused conflict between developers and local residents. Recently in Japan it was reported that a mega-solar project developer paid a local politician to mollify residents who opposed the project.  Those who oppose renewable energy have highlighted such press reports to reinforce their position.  

Having said that, as a Japanese researcher, I acknowledge that the South Korean government  has taken an important first step in announcing a firm plan with concrete targets for investment and job creation. Recently, my research group in Japan published the Zero Nuclear Energy Transition Strategy (  At the moment, I would say, this is the most and only comprehensive and concrete energy transition plan, including numerical targets for investment and job creation, that can serve as an alternative to the current Japanese government’s energy and climate policy.   

China’s President Xi Jinping has declared 2060 to be his country’s goal for achieving carbon neutrality, and has promised huge investment in renewables, electric vehicles, etc. The race toward energy transition is heating up all over the world. It is essential for governments to provide clear and exact direction in order to accomplish this energy transition. Otherwise, industries cannot make the necessary investments and will lose their international competitiveness. While South Korea might be ahead in drawing up a specific green new deal plan, we desperately need sound competition among other East Asian countries to move forward a real transition to renewable energy. Setting specific targets and creating a roadmap are the most critical actions our governments must take.