Will the silent return of coal threaten Japan’s climate goals?


Author: Florentine Koppenborg, Free University of Berlin

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

In Japan, coal is making a stealthy comeback as controversial debates over the use of nuclear power and renewables capture public attention.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decisively announced the restart of 43 nuclear reactors within three years in his New Years speech 2013. Considering Abe’s pro-nuclear stance throughout his career, it was no surprise when his administration decided to keep nuclear power as a core power source. Basic energy plan. In the Energy Mix 2030 document of April 2015, the Abe administration adopted the specific digital objective of generating between 20 and 22 percent supply of electricity to nuclear reactors by 2030.

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

The Abe government assumed that renewables would offset the 7-9% reduction in nuclear power generation from 2010 levels, so that Japan could meet its Paris target. emission reduction commitment 26% below 2013 levels.

Even these reduced targets for nuclear power production have been called into question. Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) Chairman Tanaka Shun-ichi vowed that the NRA is doing everything in its power to quickly initiate the safety review process, but noted that it could not be done within three years Abe promised in his New Year’s speech.

Indeed, of the 43 nuclear reactors available for commercial use, only 12 were found to be safe since the NRA began its safety reviews in 2013. Many reactors are set to remain inactive, resulting in electricity from nuclear power plants accounting for at most about 15% of the electricity supply by 2030, instead of from 20 to 22%.

Abe’s rhetoric shifted from pro-nuclear to cautious when he realized that the numerical targets found in the Energy Mix 2030 document are unachievable and that safety concerns in the nuclear industry persist. During a discussion in January 2016 on Japan’s future electricity supply before Japan’s upper house budget committee, Abe acknowledged that the 2030 energy mix target would only be possible if all nuclear reactors are approved by the NRA and restarted. Abe added that his administration would certainly not restart nuclear reactors against the NRA’s judgment just because the 20-22% target exists. It seemed to amount to an admission that his original goal will not be achieved.

Already, the problems related to these energy mix objectives are starting to appear. In 2015, nuclear power accounted for only 1% of electricity production, which means that other sources of energy are needed to close the gap. Renewable energy generated 15% of total electricity in 2015, an increase of 5% from 2010 levels. Electricity generation from natural gas, which produces half of greenhouse gas emissions greenhouse of coal-based electricity production, has reached 44% in 2015. This is 17% more than the target found in the Energy Mix 2030 document.

Currently, coal-fired power plants generate electricity to compensate for abandoned nuclear power plants that renewables and natural gas cannot produce on their own. The share of coal in electricity production reaches 32 percent in 2015. This is 6% more than the 26% envisaged in the Energy Mix 2030 document.

In order to meet Japan’s emission reduction commitment, all abandoned nuclear power must be replaced with low-emission power sources. But private companies do substantial investments in the extension of coal-fired power stations which will exceed Japan’s current coal-based production capacity. Agents in the private and public sectors are pushing for technology that would reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants and improve carbon capture and storage. Yet substantial investments in these new capabilities put Japan on the path to long-term dependence on coal at the expense of failure to meet its emission reduction targets.

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

To avoid reliance on coal following the nuclear phase-out, Japan’s private and public sectors will need to double their commitment and investment in renewable energy.

Florentine Koppenborg is a postdoctoral researcher at the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at the Free University of Berlin.


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