East Asia big three announce net-zero targets; to lead the region, they must ensure short-term alignment

Posted on 23 November 2020

Short term national climate plans (or NDCs) by East Asia’s big three must be ambitious enough to match the game-changing longer-term net-zero pledges they made, says WWF

Late last month, President Moon Jae-in announced that Korea would commit to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, capping a trio of game-changing net-zero announcements made within weeks of each other by East Asia’s big three – China, Japan and Korea.

In addition to Korea’s pledge, Japan committed to be net-zero by 2050 and China committed to be net-zero by 2060.

The net-zero pledges sent strong signals to the domestic sectors in the three countries about the future of energy systems without fossil fuels. Specifically, these announcements will influence the power, industry, transport and building sectors.

Enhanced NDCs essential

The East Asia big three collectively account for 33 per cent of global CO2 emissions, making their pledges significant in light of global efforts to reduce emissions.

Each of the countries must also submit, as soon as possible but certainly before COP26 in November 2021, enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which set out how a country intends to limit CO2 emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 (short-term commitment), and to be net-zero by 2050 (longer term commitment). 

As part of the global climate Paris Accord, enhanced national climate plans (or NDCs) must be submitted to the UN soon. While Japan has already submitted an unchanged NDC, Environment Minister Shinjirō Koizumi announced that Japan would aim for “aspiring figures in the NDC reflecting further ambitious emissions reduction efforts” and submit additional information by COP26. Korea and China are still to submit their revised NDCs.

It is essential that the pledges are detailed in NDCs to ensure that commitments are converted into specific and actionable sectoral policies and sub-targets. 

Regional responsibility beyond the borders

The commitments made by East Asia’s big three both put pressure on other major carbon producers to scale up their climate ambition, and set a high bar for other Asian countries to follow.

It also raises a question of how the announcements by the big three can inspire their Asian peers to strengthen their climate commitments, and if so, how the net-zero targets in the region affect the overseas energy investment decisions by the big three in the future.

Reaching net-zero emissions requires tackling emissions from long-lived assets, in which coal power generation is one of the most significant sectors in the region. China, Japan, and Korea are the three biggest public financiers of overseas coal projects globally, where most of the coal power investments fall into Asian emerging economies in the past decade. Strikingly, most of the emissions will occur in the future given that numerous coal projects are in the pipeline.

On the other hand, falling costs for solar PV and wind power have made capital investment far more productive, which could cost effectively reduce CO2 emissions from the power system. While the fossil fuel  power market has been disturbed by the pandemic this year, wind and solar have shown an important degree of resilience with renewables-based generation increasing by 3 per cent in the first quarter of 2020.

The emerging Asia is no longer in favour of coal power

Recent policy moves among other Asian countries are sending strong signals that emerging economies in the region are prioritizing investment in clean renewables rather than coal power.

The emerging Asia is moving away from coal. The most outstanding example is Viet Nam where, thanks to a supportive feed-in tariff policy, it surpassed Malaysia and Thailand to reach the largest installed capacity of solar panels in Southeast Asia within 18 months. In July this year, the Viet Nam Energy Institute released the eighth Power Development Plan draft for public comment. It sets out the country’s energy development targets for 2030. In the draft, there is a high possibility to cancel seven planned coal projects and postpone six others until after 2030 or 2035. In addition, the draft raised its renewable energy target to the most ambitious scenario in comparison with the last energy plan.

Another example is the Philippines. On the same day Korea announced its net-zero pledge, Filipino Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi declared a moratorium on new coal power plants being built in the Philippines. This is likely to put a stop to 8GW of pre-permit coal projects out of 12 GW new coal projects in the pipeline. Cusi also vowed to push for the transition from fossil fuel-based technology utilization to cleaner energy sources to ensure more sustainable growth for the country.

Climate leadership

The pledges by East Asia’s big three should inspire other countries in the region to make equally bold pledges, and to submit enhanced NDCs which are aligned to their long-term ambition.  But what will truly mark them as  global climate leaders will be their domestic and foreign consistency through  wiser overseas power investment decisions.

TOBAI Sadayosi, WWF-Japan Chief Executive Officer

Dr. YoonHee Hong, WWF-Korea Executive Director

Vanessa Perez-Cirera, WWF International Global Deputy Lead Climate & Energy

Wind turbines in China
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