Japan caught in coal-nuclear climate conundrum

A cruel twist of fate means the Japanese government sees itself stuck between a rock and a hard place, over coal and uranium, as the world prepares for a seminal climate change meeting from November.

A cruel twist of fate means the Japanese government sees itself stuck between a rock and a hard place, over coal and uranium, as the world prepares for a seminal climate change meeting from November.

The massive earthquake that hit the country’s eastern seaboard and sparked a nuclear crisis on 11 March, 2011 led the Japanese government to re-embrace fossil fuels after shutting down its entire fleet of 54 operational nuclear reactors. This led to the country’s second highest emissions rise during the year to March 2014 – up to 1.41 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent and a 10.8 increase compared to 1990.

The Japanese government hopes a reversion to nuclear power will help reduce national emissions again. The reopening in August of its first post-nuclear disaster reactor in Sendai is expected then to lead the way to a re-nuclearized Japan, where atomic energy will supply nearly a quarter of the country’s electricity demand.

Such enthusiasm, however, may be ill founded considering public anti-nuclear demonstrations and questions whether the government possesses the political and financial capital to wade through a tougher legal landscape and an eventual necessity to upgrade some of the aging reactors.

This scenario then begs the question of where renewable energy fits into Japan’s future energy mix. The answer, according to the government’s latest energy source projections, is not as much as coal and about the same as uranium.

In a June announcement on future energy policy, the Japanese government indicated coal will continue to hold the second most prominent place in its projected mix of energy sources to meet national electricity demands up to 2030.  It anticipates coal will account for 26 per cent of the nation’s power generation, joined by liquefied natural gas at 27 per cent. Following is a broadly similar proportion of renewables (22 to 24 percent) and nuclear energy (20 to 22 per cent).

Japan’s continued emphasis on coal will have widespread repercussions for current and future generations. This is because decisions made now about power generation in the world’s fifth largest emitter holds the key to Japan’s climate change story.

Carbon dioxide form the global power sector is the main cause of warming since it produces 37 per cent of man-made carbon dioxide. It is the most ubiquitous of greenhouse gases and persists in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

Increasingly, governments and businesses are questioning the need to produce energy by burning coal, the game changer technology of the 18th and 19th centuries which spurred the Industrial Revolution. This is because of the air pollution it causes at localised levels and its wider harmful effects as the most emissions-intensive fossil fuel.

Coal combustion currently accounts for 40 per cent of the world’s electricity demands. But many countries, including heavily polluted ones such as China, are now moving away from coal. China’s concerns about its status as the climate change superpower, in terms of its pre-eminent emissions, and public anger at prevailing blankets of noxious smog across rural and urban landscapes set off a decline in coal use across the country in the first half of 2015.

The sudden, tragic and disruptive nature of the 2011 earthquake helps to garner sympathy for Japan’s travails in reducing its domestic emissions. Such sympathetic considerations are likely, however, to be forgotten when considering Japan’s ongoing support of coal mining and combustion in other countries. A report by a consortium of environmental groups released in June found that Japan is now the planet’s top public financer of overseas coal plants, technology and mining. Support for coal has even been included in Japan’s overseas climate finance to developing countries. 

Some commentators say the Japanese government should be doing more to husband high-tech, low-carbon industries at home and abroad. Indeed, the government’s attachment to coal threatens to cloud domestic progress in renewables. While China has stolen the limelight by its huge move during recent years into the renewable energy market, it is less known that Japan represented the world’s second biggest solar photovoltaic (PV) market in 2013.

Kycoera, a Japanese ceramic company which has expended globally, recently opened one of the world’s largest floating solar panel plants in central Hyogo prefecture. Japan’s Panasonic is tapping into its expertise in batteries to work closely with California-based Tesla in designing longer range electric cars.

The development of advanced low-carbon technology fits well with Japan’s well-deserved reputation for high-tech and advanced engineering designs. Stronger support for industries to advance into renewable technology would surely benefit Japan’s diplomats seated at international negotiating tables and better prepare its companies for what seems set to be a lower carbon future.

The author is an Australian-based climate change writer and journalist.

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