National | VIEW FROM OSAKA

Kyoto forum's leaders warm up to renewables

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Each autumn, the world’s most influential scientists, engineers, business leaders and science policy experts gather in Kyoto for the Science and Technology in Society Forum. The STS Forum is the brainchild of Koji Omi, a former finance minister and Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry bureaucrat and one of Japan’s most powerful behind-the-scenes politicians.

A regular STS theme over the years has been energy. Omi, as befitting a conservative Liberal Democratic Party politician and former METI bureaucrat, has long been aggressively pro-nuclear power. When Naoto Kan addressed the STS in 2009 as deputy prime minister, just after the Democratic Party of Japan took power from the LDP, he spoke of the need to pursue solar power and biomass energy. A few foreign attendees applauded, but guests from Keidanren, the utilities and the Japanese government sat stone-faced.

For years, STS energy discussions were scripted less to address the realities of worldwide energy trends and how they were impacting “science and technology in society” and more to reflect the world view of Omi and the pro-nuclear Japanese government. This approach warmed the hearts of Japan’s fossil fuel lobby and nuclear power village. But it meant STS didn’t exactly attract creative, innovative thinking on cutting-edge energy technology issues.

At this year’s conference in early October, however, renewable energy developments could no longer be ignored. Finally, some of Japan’s most influential leaders had given a nod, however slight, to more renewable energy discussion at STS.

The old men at STS and in Japan’s nuclear power village had long seen renewable energy proponents as “communists” “eco-terrorists” or “dreamers” who were their ideological enemies and, therefore, not to be trusted with something as important as the nation’s energy future. It took them a while to admit (to themselves) that renewable energy was here to stay, especially since Japan’s major corporations (STS sponsors, many of them) were taking renewable energy very seriously indeed.

True, Omi did make perfunctory remarks about nuclear power continuing to remain necessary — “both fission and fusion power,” he said. But the change of weather at the Kyoto conference was not merely the arrival of autumn. It was the winds of a subtle change in attitude: Some of Japan’s most trenchant defenders of fossil fuels and nuclear power were at least willing to listen to more presentations on the technological challenges of nuclear power and devoted a number of sessions to it.

That this happened in Kyoto is also no surprise. From Hokkaido to Okinawa, local governments are pushing forward with renewable energy goals that are far more ambitious than the national energy strategy calling for 22 percent to 24 percent of electricity to be supplied by renewables by 2030. Kyoto Prefecture has announced it aims to be nuclear power-free by 2040.

With liberalization of Japan’s electricity sector taking place over the next few years, most international predications showing renewable energy becoming ever-cheaper and battery storage technologies becoming ever-more efficient, local governments around Japan are often better poised to take advantage of these changes than megacity dwellers, who are hooked on lifestyles that require huge amounts of electricity and live in places whose sheer size means decisions take longer and opponents are more numerous and better funded.

The revolution won’t happen overnight. But it is happening, and is now so obvious that even STS members who once fought tooth and nail to keep renewable energy discussion on the margins are, however reluctantly, embracing it more as a legitimate topic of discussion. When STS members gather in Kyoto next year, it may well be nuclear power, rather than renewable energy, advocates who suddenly find themselves, if not entirely on the margins, then at least further outside the center of attention.