Nikkei Asia: China, Japan and South Korea have good news for planet Earth

Published in Nikkei Asia on 4 November 2020

No matter who is declared the winner of the U.S. presidential election, Asia’s pathway to becoming a carbon-neutral continent is now increasingly clear.

Six months ago, Asia was lagging desperately behind the rest of the world, including South America and Africa, in its commitment to achieving net zero emissions by midcentury. Only the governments of New Zealand, plus the Marshall Islands and Fiji as the usual vanguards of international climate leadership, had made such a commitment and — importantly — also enshrined it in domestic legislation.

The recent groundbreaking commitments by China, Japan, and South Korea, mean the three largest economies in East Asia now have clear pathways to decarbonization by mid-century. In terms of Asia’s G-20 membership, only India, Australia and Indonesia now lag behind.

Importantly, Japan and Korea’s announcements will also help put pressure on China to hopefully reach carbon neutrality closer to 2050 — around the time of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China — and to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions a decade later. These pathways remain an open debate in Beijing’s political circles, including in the wake of last week’s Fifth Plenum, and as preparations continue toward their next Five Year Plan.

We may see further signals from China on this by the time of the UN Secretary-General’s event to celebrate the 5-year anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement on December 12, and the world will certainly be watching closely. More so if Joe Biden is set to move into the White House the following month, meaning close to 60% of the world’s carbon emissions will then be from countries committed to net zero emissions.

Beyond the symbolism of these political commitments, they are first and foremost massive market signals. This is especially the case for China, Japan and Korea’s major trading partners, including their largest import markets for coal. But, it is important to note, they are not out of step with the direction of Asia’s biggest companies in recent years.

For example, the Thai conglomerate C.P. Group, one of the world’s largest agri-food producers, had already committed to net zero emissions. In recent days, Malaysia’s Petronas — the region’s largest oil and gas producer — joined them. Even BHP Billiton in my own country — one of the world’s largest mining companies and no fan of climate action — has adopted the same goal.

These announcements reflect what is happening at a subnational level in Asia. In the last year, Asia has outpaced the rest of the world in terms of commitments by cities and regions to net zero emissions with Tokyo, Wuhan, Hong Kong and eight Australian states and territories all joining the list. Taken together, they alone represent over 223 million people, or 10% of the region’s population. This leadership has been a key part of why the approach of these three national governments has now shifted. The challenge now for the region is threefold.

First, at a political level, to holistically embrace the vision of becoming a carbon-neutral continent in the same way Europe has done. This will be a much harder enterprise than it has been in Europe, even with some of their coal-dependent economies and right-wing governments, but it is not impossible.

Key to this will be driving consideration of more national-level commitments to net zero emissions, especially among the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which represent more of a mixed bag in this regard. This could be a key area for cooperative regional leadership between China’s President Xi Jinping, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, including in the lead-up to next year’s COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow.

Second, these governments must put their money where their mouths are and stop underpinning the development of carbon-intensive infrastructure — especially coal-fired power plants — across the rest of the region. Japan and Korea have taken important steps in this regard recently, but there is more still to be done. China’s Belt and Road Initiative is obviously a particular concern in that context, especially when Chinese investment, development finance, and support via equipment or personnel is taken together.

Third, these governments should align their short-term actions with their long-term vision. In China, Japan and South Korea, the challenges to do so may be different, but the problem is the same. Unless each of these three countries can also enhance their Paris targets for 2030 by the time they get to COP26, the depth and sincerity of their long-term commitments will come increasingly under the spotlight. For China, this must mean peaking emissions by 2025, accelerating action in other areas that they committed to do in Paris, and getting on a pathway to phase out coal by 2040. For Japan and Korea, it must mean phasing out coal even sooner — by 2030 — and seriously ramping up the share of renewables in their energy mix.

There is clearly a new wave of climate leadership emerging across Asia. The main question now for the region is whether it is able to ride that wave successfully, or whether its own actions in the short term, or lack of wider regional momentum, risks bringing it to a shuddering halt as the rest of the world moves forward.