Doubling Down on Coal: How Japan lost its footing on emissions reductions

In the first part of our ‘Climate for Change’ series, Governance Post Editor Isaac Ward-Fineman explains Japan’s upswing in coal use and offers a way for it to get back on track with emissions reductions.

Plight of the Sakura

Towards the end of March through the beginning of April, millions flock outdoors to revel in hanami, Japan’s sakura tree blossom season. So important is this seasonal treasure that there is a weather forecast that pinpoints the day of peak bloomage so that people can plan parties and gatherings under these pink clouds of petals.

Yet this age-old tradition may not be around forever if climate change continues at current pace. The last several year have seen erratic temperatures and rainy seasons, not to mention an increase in tree-pests that favour warmer weather, all of which has some biologists predicting more abnormal blooms or even die-offs of the iconic sakura.

Beyond the plight of cherry trees, the impacts of climate change are already putting Japan under significant stress. Even with its world-class infrastructure, Japan saw a 3-day deluge of typhonic rain this July that killed hundreds and forced thousands to evacuate residential areas due to flooding and mudslides. Later in the same month, a sweltering heat wave, of temperatures surpassing 40 degrees, crept across the country, setting national weather records and driving citizens to seek air conditioned refuge.

Despite its clear vulnerability to and the human cost of the effects of climate change, the Japanese government has taken few steps to reduce the country’s GHG emissions, let alone fill the vacuum of global leadership on the issue.

From a bird’s-eye view, Japan appears to be a prime candidate for a smooth transition towards a less GHG intensive economy. It has little to boast of in terms of fossil fuel reserves and possesses an abundance of renewable energy sources along with the technological capacity and knowhow to harness their potential. Yet, as is often the case, it is little more than politics and an aversion to change that is shackling Japan’s renewable energy reformation.

The Fall of Nuclear and the Rise of Coal

There was a time when Japan appeared to be a frontrunner in the sustainable energy and emissions reductions movement, using its formidable fleet of nuclear power plants to generate 30% of its electrical power. But the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, in which the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant suffered a meltdown, put an end to this environmental optimism.

The practical feasibility of nuclear power generation in an earthquake-prone country was called into question and the operation of all 54 nuclear power reactor in Japan was suspended. Of equal gravity was the public outcry against nuclear power as memories of the trauma caused by nuclear radiation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unearthed and re-lived. While the government has managed to reactivate 9 nuclear reactors in recent years, the stigma of nuclear power makes its substantial return seem unlikely.

The government sought to fill this deficit in energy supply with costly fossil fuel imports, with an emphasis on coal. As nuclear generated electricity went from 28.6% of the 2010 electricity mix to zero almost overnight, coal picked up some of the slack as it rose from 25% of the power generation share to 31%, roughly the same level at which it remains today.

Despite the government’s 2030 energy plan target for returning coal usage to pre-2010 levels, over 40 new coal-fired power plants have been built across the country. Paired with the fact that it’s doubtful that the government’s vision for nuclear power generating nearly a quarter of its future energy will come to fruition, an increase in coal use seems the likely course. This myopia also knows no national boundaries – the Japanese government and private corporations alike have become notorious for funding and building large coal-fired power plants across South East Asia, few if any of which which would meet its own domestic pollution standards.

Climate change and pollution aside,  doubling down on fossil fuel imports doesn’t make economic sense either, as Japan is forecasted to spend upwards of $24 billion on coal imports alone in 2018 and has suffered from shocks in the fossil fuel market in the past. And with every new coal-fired power plant, every grant towards fossil fuel research, and ever closer ties between the coal industry and government, Japan is further locking itself onto a long-term path of coal dependency.

Renewable Energy Potential

One answer to Japan’s energy woes and future emissions reductions can be found in the abundant onsen, or traditional geothermal baths that can be enjoyed across the country. For most of history, the hot springs were thought to be one of the few upsides of living on a geologic hot spot frequented by severe earthquakes, but technological advancements have shown that there is tremendous potential for geothermal power generation as well.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Japan has the 3rd highest potential for geothermal energy in the world, far beyond that of Iceland which has been able to harness the steam from below to generate 25% of its total electricity production. Harnessing this existing resource would enable the Japanese government and energy sector to kill three birds with one stone- decreased coal usage, reduced emissions and a means to keep the vast majority of its nuclear power plants offline.

Yet only 2% of this vast potential is being harnessed as of 2018, with few plans to expand in the future. Much of this standstill can be traced back to the Japan Spa Association, a lobby for the thermal spa industry that has pushed back against any geothermal power development, despite the success of small-scale cooperative projects between the owners of onsen and local geothermal power production ventures. If geothermal power is to ever become a viable part of Japan’s energy strategy, pressure from private bath house owners, the government and citizens will be needed to change the status quo.

In tandem with an increase geothermal energy production, the Japanese government and energy sector would also need to utilize all of its resources in other areas of renewable energy generation. Even though Japan holds nearly 1/6th of global renewable energy technology patents and being at the forefront of technological research, only 15% of its electricity is produced from renewable sources.

While the aim is to reach 24% by 2030, this will take significant cooperation between the government and private sector to bring down the cost of solar energy, which is currently more than twice the price per kilowatt hour as Germany, and make the industry competitive. As for wind energy, Japan still has a comparatively low rate of deployment and could benefit from more ambitious energy policies that could propel the sector to scale up and drive prices down.

Combined with a base load of geothermal energy, solar and wind could be the additional capacity that Japan needs to keep its dependence on nuclear energy and coal to a minimum. It will take considerable time and effort but, with decisive action, the world could come to admire Japan for the beauty of its sakura as well as the ambitious emissions reductions that preserved these trees for generations to come.

Isaac Ward-Fineman is a class of 2019 Master of International Affairs candidate at the Hertie School of Governance. He graduated with degrees in Political Science and Japanese from the University of Oregon. Isaac has worked in the educational development sector in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and is interested in renewable energy access, migration in the Americas and issues driving wealth inequality.