Will the Silent Comeback of Coal Threaten Japan’s Climate Goals?

Will the Silent Comeback of Coal Threaten Japan’s Climate Goals?
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像

What you need to know

Japan’s energy debate demonstrates that phasing out coal from the electricity mix and replacing it with renewable alternatives can be a political challenge.   

The Paris climate agreement was a milestone in the fight against global warming and another sign that the world is turning away from fossil fuels. Yet Japan’s energy debate demonstrates that phasing out coal from the electricity mix and replacing it with renewable alternatives can be a political challenge.

In Japan, coal is making a stealthy comeback as contentious debates about the use of nuclear power and renewable energy capture the public’s attention.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decisively announced a restart of all 43 nuclear reactors within three years in his 2013 New Year’s address. Given Abe’s career-long pro-nuclear stance, it was no surprise when his administration resolved to retain nuclear power as a baseload power source Basic Energy Plan. In the April 2015 Energy Mix 2030 document, the Abe administration adopted the specific numerical target of generating between 20 and 22 percent of the electricity supply from nuclear reactors by 2030.

This target was predicated on two assumptions: that energy efficiency and savings measures will keep future energy demand at its current level, and that there will be an expansion of renewable energy sources.

The Abe government assumed that renewable energy would make up the 7-9 percent reduction in nuclear power generation compared to 2010 levels so that Japan could meet its Paris emissions reductions pledge of 26 percent below 2013 levels.

Even these reduced nuclear power generation targets have been questioned. The Chairman of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), Tanaka Shun-ichi, promised that the NRA was doing everything in its power to undertake the safety review process in a swift manner, but noted that it simply could not be done within the three years Abe promised in his New Year’s address.

Indeed, out of the 43 nuclear reactors available for commercial use, only 12 have been deemed safe since the NRA began its safety screenings in 2013. Many reactors are bound to remain idle, which will result in electricity from nuclear power plants making up at most about 15 percent of the electricity supply by 2030, rather than 20-22 percent.

Abe’s rhetoric has moved from pro-nuclear to cautious upon realizing that the numerical targets found in the Energy Mix 2030 document are unattainable and that safety problems in the nuclear industry remain. During a January 2016 discussion about Japan’s future electricity supply before the Budget Committee of Japan’s upper house, Abe acknowledged that the Energy Mix 2030 goal would not be possible unless all nuclear reactors are approved by the NRA and restarted. Abe added that his administration would certainly not restart nuclear reactors against the judgment of the NRA solely because of the 20-22 percent goal exists. This seemed tantamount to an admission that his original goal will not be achieved.

Already, the problems with these energy mix targets are starting to show. In 2015, nuclear power accounted for only 1 percent of electricity production, meaning other energy sources are required to bridge the gap. Renewable energy generated 15 percent of the total electricity in 2015, an increase of 5 percent from 2010 levels. Power generation from natural gas, which produces half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal-based power generation, reached 44 percent in 2015. This is 17 percent more than the target found in the Energy Mix 2030 document.

Currently, coal-fired thermal power plants generate the electricity to compensate for discontinued nuclear power plants that renewable energy and natural gas alone cannot produce. The share of coal in electricity generation reached 32 percent in 2015. That is 6 percent more than the 26 percent envisaged in the Energy Mix 2030 document.

In order to meet Japan’s emissions reductions pledge, all discontinued nuclear power needs to be replaced with low emissions energy sources. But private companies are making substantial investments into expanding coal-fired thermal power plants that will exceed Japan’s current coal-based generation capacity. Both private and public sector agents are pushing for technology that would reduce pollution from coal-power plants and enhance carbon capture and storage. Yet substantial investments into these new capacities are setting Japan on a path of long-term coal reliance at the expense of failing to meet its emissions reductions targets.

Japan’s energy policy is at a crossroads. Either it can turn to coal to counter the losses in electricity generation that have resulted from shutting down nuclear power plants or it can move forward by pushing renewables and natural gas. Even if the potential for hydropower has been fully exploited, there is abundant renewable energy potential for geothermal, wind and biomass expansion.

To avoid a reliance on coal in the wake of the nuclear phase out, both the private and public sector in Japan will have to double down on its commitment to, and investment in, renewable energy.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White