Last week I was on holiday and generally doing my best to ignore the news. On catching up at the weekend, I was delighted to read that both Japan and South Korea had made net zero commitments while I wasn’t looking.
This is particularly good news because it’s fair to say that these are two countries that have been slow to embrace the challenge of decarbonisation. Despite being wealthy nations with the means to change, the climate has not been high on the political agenda. Emissions have only recently turned a corner in Japan, and are still rising in Korea.
In both countries, the new commitments have come after elections. The South Korean government won re-election with promises of a Green New Deal, while Suga Yoshihide has replaced Shinzo Abe as Prime Minister of Japan. Since there hasn’t been a change of political party in either countriy, I don’t think we should expect revolutionary steps from either administration. But as yesterday’s post pointed out, citizens want and expect action on climate change. Both countries suppport clean energy, and in a democracy, elections tend to focus minds.
A point to note here is the role of global peer pressure. Climate sceptics sometimes complain that Britain’s climate pledges are meaningless, but ambition begets ambition. China moved after the EU moved. Japan moved after China, and as the South Korean environmentalist Joojin Kim said, “the recent announcements from Japan and China have definitely put pressure on Korea to announce a target year for carbon neutrality.”
Korea’s announcement comes days after Japan, and coincides with a visit from Alok Sharma, Britain’s energy minister and lead for the COP 26 talks.
We know that in time, we need to see robust carbon targets in every country in the world. Important hold-outs remain, the most important being the US and Russia. This week Russia said they have no plans to cut fossil fuel production, and they remain on the wrong side of the debate. But the more countries declare net zero targets, the more isolated those hold-outs become.
The biggest remaining outlier is of course the United States, and the future of the climate depends on events unfolding there in unpredictable and alarming fashion. But if Joe Biden can eke out an election victory, there may be another big declaration to come.