The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is yet another reminder that one of the few potentially positive effects of the Tohoku disaster was a shakeup and rethink of Japan’s energy policy.
Electricity supply shortages in the wake of the 2011 disaster pushed the country to re-evaluate its energy use and to search for alternatives to nuclear energy.
The momentum may have fallen off slightly during the past year, but a new report from Australia’s Climate Commission indicates positive moves by China and the United States, the two largest emitters of carbon pollutants.
Because the report positions Japan, the fifth-largest emitter, as a potential leader in a range of energy policies, it strikes a positive note. But Japan still has a lot of work to do to establish a viable national energy policy.
Japanese initiatives on energy efficiency, emissions trading schemes and renewable energy sources should be given greater encouragement by the government.
The Australian report compiled data, studies and analysis from climate scientists, policy experts and business leaders. The report showed that all major economies were taking action on energy policies but that China and the U.S. were leading.
Japan should pay attention to the findings and work harder to help lead global energy policies through innovation at home and cooperation abroad.
One area where Japan has become a global leader, according to findings by the International Energy Agency (IEA), an autonomous organization of which Japan was a founding member, is in energy efficiency. Efficiency means much more than just better vending machines that consume less electricity, though.
Over the past year, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Japan has expanded its energy efficiency in housing and building, as well as with machinery and equipment.
The target for Japan is to cut electricity demand by at least 10 percent by 2030. That target is a moderate one that could be exceeded if the government supports and enacts its policies more thoroughly. The IEA has stated that energy efficiency could reduce almost 65 percent of global greenhouse emissions, which contribute the worst effects of climate change.
Japan has also taken tentative steps to set up an emissions trading scheme, but only in Tokyo and Saitama. That puts Japan rather far behind the 35 countries with developed national emissions trading schemes.
While the market-based approach of controlling pollution by providing economic incentives may not be perfect, the trading schemes have been effective in capping pollutants by setting a clear economic cost on all emissions, so that they are not ignored but factored into the total cost of all production.
Many small and medium-sized enterprises in Japan may complain that the system of carbon calculation amounts to no more than an added tax on fossil fuel, but the financial pressure will lead businesses toward renewable energy sources.
Developing a stronger carbon pricing system, and enforcing it, will put Japan in line with other developed economies. China is set to begin emissions trading in selected cities and provinces this year, and the U.S. has already established nine subnational schemes, most notably in California. Japan should not fall behind.
Perhaps Japan’s greatest energy challenge, as it is in the rest of the world, is to develop renewable energy sources. Japan’s government could learn from China, which has become the world leader in renewable energy.
From 2011 to 2012, China increased its wind power capacity by 36 percent and its solar power capacity by 75 percent. According to the Climate Commission report, China invested $65.1 billion in clean energy, a figure unmatched by any other nation.
Japan has a significant role to play not only in making clean energy a reality at home but also in helping to export the technology abroad.
Already, the Japan-China Economic Association, a private-sector bilateral economic promotion body based in Tokyo, has set up a cooperative network to help reduce pollution in China.
Joint Japanese-Indian corporate ventures have contributed to high-efficiency, low-emission technologies. If Japan can continue to develop its clean-energy industry, such cooperative ventures and their economic benefits are sure to increase.
The U.S., too, has gained traction in renewable energy policy. After his re-election, President Barack Obama made a commitment to clean energy in his State of the Union Address in February. Despite opposition, the U.S. nearly doubled its renewable energy capacity between 2008 and 2012. Working together on clean energy is an important cooperative undertaking that would continue to benefit both Japan and the U.S.
Without policy support by the government, though, renewable energy is not likely to happen. The Australian report shows evidence that in countries with declining support, progress on finding solutions to energy problems slowed or even stopped. Globally emissions continue to rise but at a slower pace. That may be a cause for optimism, but it is not a sign of having reached a solution.
Climate change will continue to pose serious risks for every country. Controlling emissions, improving efficiency and developing renewable energy sources are the best insurance policies against those risks. The coming decade is crucial, not just for Japan, but for the world.