Japan: Coal, Nukes and the road to Paris

This article is part of our environmental coverage in the lead up to the Paris Conference on climate change. For more articles like it, like our facebook page for the latest to your feed.

Japan, it’s the world’s third largest economy and the most technologically advanced state. It is also one of the world’s worst polluters of CO2 per capita.

Despite being one of the most energy efficient nations on the planet, Japan is addicted to electricity. Tokyo is alight 24 hours a day,  and the decentralised transport system means that there are millions of cars on the road, all whilst the country experiences humid summers and freezing winters which keep air conditioning units and heaters running all year round.

Tokyo by Night
Tokyo by Night

One of Japan’s greatest security risk is this reliance on energy and the proportion of which it imports. Japan is a resource poor nation –  it sources approximately 84% of its energy needs from overseas. The volatility this energy importation system was highlighted during the 1970s oil crises where electricity prices spiked and Japan’s vulnerability to the unstable fossil fuel energy market was laid bare. While the crises spurred the Japanese innovations in Low-Emission Vehicles (LEVs) it did little in the way of forcing Japan to reconsider its energy policies or to search for alternatives.

It is this pattern of a focus on technological advancement rather than dealing with the problem at its roots that has plagued Japanese climate and environmental policy over the past 50 years. The institutionalised influence of business, the mentality of ‘polluter pays’ and the ability of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry to determine environmental policy means the economics will consistently take priority over climate concerns. Even now as renewable technologies are more efficient and productive than ever before, Japan’s focus has remained on coal, albeit a more efficient use of it, but coal nonetheless.

Japan's Energy Policy. Source: Japan Times
Japan’s Energy Policy. Source: Japan Times

Rather than diversify its energy sources, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has continued to support the development and export of advanced coal technology. The government intends to commercialise technologies that will improve the efficiency of coal generation during the 2020s:

“By applying Japan’s most advanced coal technology, the US, China and India can reduce a combined 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year” – Japan’s Trade Minister, Toshimitsu Motegi told parliament in February.

If this is correct, then Japan may arguably become carbon neutral simply by offsetting the emissions of other nations. However, the question remains whether this is constructive for the global climate change mitigation movement or even a safe long-term policy for Japan, considering the security risks associated with its energy import behaviour.

The reality is, Japan was gradually weaning itself off coal; it had become one of the primary users and innovators in the technology that sits in limbo between fossil fuels and renewables – nuclear power. Carbon neutral, arguably clean, efficient and able to produce energy around the clock – nuclear seemed to be Japan’s answer to global pleas to reduce its emissions. But before this dream came to fruition – disaster struck.


Japan 2011 Tsunami
Japan 2011 Tsunami. Source: LA Times
Fukushima Meltdown 2011. Source: Legal Planet
Fukushima Meltdown 2011. Source: Legal Planet

At 2.46pm on March 11, 2011 the Great Earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 struck 130km off the coast of Japan. The subsequent 15 metre tsunami claim 19,000 lives and inundated approximately 560km2 of the Japanese coastline. But eyes quickly turned to the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. The tsunami disabled the power supply – and therefore the essential cooling equipment – of three of the reactors. The subsequent meltdown is the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. High levels of nuclear radiation leaked into the surrounding area and over 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes. While there have been no deaths or cases of radiation sickness recorded from the accident, Japan has lost much of its trust in the nuclear solution.

All nuclear reactors have been shut down for stringent safety checks and once more coal is a vital long-term electricity source. Japan’s CO2 emissions are now at record highs – in January its power companies consumed 5.66 million metric tonnes of coal, a record for that month and 12 percent more than last year. Prior to the Fukushima disaster Japan got only 62% of its electricity from fossil fuels and nuclear provided around a third. Now, fossil fuels provide approximately 90 percent.

A new path forwards

Surprisingly, in the lead up to the Climate Conference in Paris later this year, Japan has joined fellow developed nations in announcing a stronger climate policy. It has proclaimed that it will slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2030 – paired with a movement away from nuclear to renewable energy.

Solar Panels in Japan. Source: The Guardian
Solar Panels in Japan. Source: The Guardian

Many questions still remain as to how Japan will achieve this aim. There is potential in its technological sector to simply improve the efficiency of its coal burning, however this is a short-term solution. Japan cannot risk continuing to rely on imported coal for its energy supply. Too much of its economy and standard of living lies at the whim of coal and oil prices and supply. Japan could turn again towards nuclear, public opinion may once again sway when the cost of fossil fuels becomes increasingly evident. It is a viable option also in reducing Japan’s CO2 emissions; the Japan Atomic Energy Agency modelled a 54% reduction in emission from 2000 levels by 2050 and then easing on towards a 90% reduction by 2100 through utilising nuclear power to provide 60% of primary energy, 10% from renewables and 30% from fossil fuels. While possibly the best option economically, the wealth of issues associated with nuclear energy such as waste disposal, safety and the fact that Japan would still rely on imports for its energy supply and the related security risks mean that nuclear may not be a much more viable option than coal.

On the other hand, renewable energy has little to no inherent security risks and has the potential to make Japan entirely energy independent. However, the Breakthrough Institute in the USA highlights the potential costs of Japan becoming 100% renewable, using solar power would cost trillion of dollars or wind power would cost hundreds of billion and take up 50% of Japan’s land area. Nonetheless the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies argues that through using nuclear energy as an interim measure and by using Japan’s technological capabilities to improve energy efficiency (innovations that could contribute to Japan’s exports and GDP) a 100% renewable energy fuelled Japan is possible.

Source: Our World – United Nations University

Japan’s energy future has three distinct possibilities in front of it – one involves a continued reliance on fossil fuel energy supplies, supplemented by other sectors such as nuclear and renewable energy (enough to keep Japan’s emission low enough to please the increasingly environmentally conscious political sphere). The second requires a revitalisation of Japan’s faith in nuclear energy – a future where dirty fossil fuels are replaced by an arguably just as unstable nuclear source, again with a small percentage of renewable energy to maintain international appearances. And the third is a Japan whose energy profile is entirely transformed, one where renewable energy dominates the electricity supply and nuclear and fossil fuel energy supplies supplement demands in peak periods. In this scenario Japan has the opportunity to nullify its energy security risks, build on its reputation as a technological vanguard of the modern world in a new field and reduce its extremely high per capita emissions for the good of the planet. The question remains which future will come to fruition.

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