News Apr 27

Japan’s new emissions goals hinge on contentious return to nuclear power

Suga's new climate pledge means renewables and nuclear power will now make up as much as 50% of Japan's electricity generation mix by 2030-31; That means more nuclear power than levels set in 2018, putting Tokyo in the crosshairs of many of its citizens

Japan’s new emissions goals hinge on controversial return to nuclear power
An inspector from the International Atomic Energy Agency checks damage at reactor no-3 at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in May 2011. The disaster was the second worst nuclear crisis the world has known and led to Japan shutting down its 50-plus nuclear power facilities due to both safety concerns and public pressure. File photo: Reuters/Tepco.

(ATF) Japan has joined a growing list of countries that have changed their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets in response to US President Joe Biden’s push to hold major polluting countries more accountable for their emissions.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said just hours before a two-day virtual climate summit hosted by Biden last Thursday and Friday that Japan would aim for a 46% reduction in emissions by 2030, over 2013 levels, up from 26% pledged earlier.

However, he added that the 2030 level was not an official government goal. Japan announced a carbon neutral 2050 pledge in October. 

“It will not be easy,” Suga said. “In order to achieve the [revised] target, we will firmly implement concrete measures, while aiming to create a positive cycle that links the economy and environment and achieve strong growth.”

Japan’s carbon neutral 2050 pledge joined a host of others, mostly in the EU, making the same commitment.

China, for its part, the world’s largest GHG emitter by far, ahead of the US and India, the second and third largest emitters respectively, announced a carbon neutral by 2060 pledge in September, without giving a clear road map or details how it would accomplish that goal.

Since then, Beijing seems to have been caught flat-footed as it tries to make good on its pledge, though last week it announced plans to trim coal usage by mid-decade. It has already pledged to stay the course with more cleaner burning natural gas build-out, while its oil and gas majors have announced green hydrogen for transportation plans. Officially, however, Beijing has not included green hydrogen in its future energy plans.

India hasn’t announced a carbon neutral goal yet, while there is doubt that New Delhi will even commit to such a pledge any time soon, given that coal makes up 70% of its electricity generation mix.

Japan has already put in place a massive renewables push, including solar, wind and biomass, and now green hydrogen development. It’s current energy plan, set forth in 2018, aims to have 22-24% of its energy come from renewables, 20-22% from nuclear power and 56% from fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas, mostly imported liquefied natural gas (LNG). 

Japan’s nuclear power trade-off 

However, to meet its new carbon emissions targets, the country will increasingly have to return to more nuclear power even above levels set in 2018 – putting Tokyo in the political crosshairs of many Japanese citizens.

Renewables and nuclear power will now make up as much as 50% of Japan's electricity generation mix by 2030-31, Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshi Kajiyama told a press conference a day after Suga’s new climate pledge. 

"Although I cannot say exactly at this moment, [the share] should be more than 50% of course,” he said.

He added that the government intends to “increase renewable energy as much as possible, and nuclear power will also constitute the share, although there are nuclear [reactors] which have restarted, or not been restarted amid some issues over trust.”

Remembering Fukushima

March 11 marked the 10th anniversary of the record breaking 9.1 magnitude earthquake off Japan, the fourth largest globally since at least 1900, that created a series of tsunamis that slammed the country’s northeast coast, including the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The disaster eventually caused Japan to shut down its remaining 50-plus nuclear facilities needed for power generation due to both safety concerns and public pressure. In order to make up for lost nuclear power, the country’s utilities had to make a hard pivot by ramping up LNG procurement in record volumes, often on the spot market at then-exorbitant prices. Japan remains the largest importer of the super-cooled fuel in the world. It is also the world’s third largest coal importer after China and India.

After the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power concerns not only rippled across a weary Japan, but across nearby Taiwan that halted construction of a major nuclear power plant by Taipower that was already 80% complete. The Fukushima accident became the second-most serious nuclear accident in history, behind the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in the former USSR some 25 years earlier.

Countries across the globe joined in the anti-nuclear power push, ranging from France to Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and back to Asia again, except for China which has largely stayed the course with its own nuclear power plans. 

According to the US Energy Information Administration, before the 2011 earthquake, Japan was the third-largest consumer of nuclear power in the world, after the US and France, while nuclear power accounted for about 13% of the country’s total energy mix. By 2019, that share had dropped to only 3%.


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