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Japan's plan for emissions cuts under scrutiny after Paris accord

by Miya Tanaka

Kyodo

Wrapping up the Group of Seven environment ministers’ meeting Monday, Tamayo Marukawa, as chairwoman of the talks, hailed the “strong political will” demonstrated by the group to implement the landmark Paris climate accord reached last year.

Critics, meanwhile, point out that without effective measures to achieve the goal, and amid plans to build new coal-burning power plants, Japan may find itself isolated and left behind within the group of industrialized nations.

One of the achievements of the meeting was a pledge in the communique that the G-7 members will not wait until the deadline in crafting their mid-century, long-term strategy to fight the rise in global temperatures, which the Paris climate accord sets at 2020.

“Based on this communique, we will work on what is necessary in our own country,” Marukawa said at a joint news conference with the other ministers, apparently referring to the need to flesh out a strategy to attain its long-term goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

But Japan, the world’s fifth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, could face challenges in putting its words into action, with some critics casting doubts over whether the country can even achieve its pledge to cut emissions by 26 percent from 2013 levels by 2030.

On Friday, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe endorsed a number of measures that companies, households and various other actors should work on toward the 2030 goal.

The electric power industry, which accounts for around 40 percent of Japan’s carbon dioxide emissions, will now be urged to shift to more efficient thermal power plants to lessen the use of fossil fuels and decrease emissions.

The industry will also be asked to raise renewable energy and nuclear power, a near-zero emission energy source, to account for at least 44 percent of the electricity sold in Japan by fiscal 2030.

Some critics find it disturbing that the government has allowed the construction of new coal-fired plants, which, even when highly efficient, emit twice the amount of carbon dioxide as natural gas-fired plants to produce the same amount of electricity.

While concerns over emissions are leading countries such as the United States and Britain to move away from coal, which has long been attractive due to its low cost and relative abundance, Japan is planning a number of large coal-fired power stations. Once built, thermal power plants are expected to operate for more than 40 years.

A group of European climate and energy experts, Third Generation Environmentalism, or E3G, said in an assessment in October 2015 that Japan “is isolated among its G-7 peers as the sole country still looking to build new unabated coal plants, let alone retire existing plants.”

The government believes tougher oversight and new rules, introduced in April, will guarantee emissions cuts by utilities. The rules include setting power generation efficiency standards for coal and other thermal power plants with the aim of encouraging operators to scrap inefficient facilities.

But Naoyuki Yamagishi, climate and energy group leader at the environmental group WWF Japan, is skeptical that the measures will prove effective in halting the increase of coal-power plants because emissions cuts are left up to the voluntary efforts of the sector.

“Due to the liberalization of Japan’s electricity retail market (in April), power companies, especially new entrants, have rushed toward cheaper electricity sources (like coal) … so it is probably difficult to bring down the number of those facilities unless regulatory actions are taken now,” he said.

“I view positively the fact that the G-7 committed themselves to bringing forward the schedule for developing their long-term strategy, but (in the case of Japan) I’m afraid it will all end as empty slogans if effective measures are not introduced swiftly,” he added.

Another controversial issue is how far the country should rely on nuclear power as a way to slash emissions amid the strong public concern stemming from the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.

Japan’s reliance on nuclear power stood at around 30 percent before the triple meltdown crisis. Under its post-Fukushima energy policy, the government plans to generate between 20 and 22 percent of total electricity using nuclear power by fiscal 2030.

But this is “a quite risky assumption in the current situation,” Yamagishi said, as it is a target widely believed to be unachievable without building new reactors or extending the operation of aging units.

While the government is pushing for the reactivation of reactors that are deemed sufficiently safe by regulators, progress has been slow, with only one nuclear power plant operating now and another forced to suspend operation due to a court injunction amid safety concerns.

Yukari Takamura, a professor at Nagoya University, said at a recent symposium in Tokyo there is “weakness” in a climate action plan that largely relies on nuclear power as a global warming countermeasure.

“Once a reactor stops due to accidents or other reasons, it takes time to restart. In this sense, it is electricity that always needs a backup (to prepare for its absence) and if we are going to burn fossil fuels instead, I say the nuclear option has great weakness,” she said.

Meanwhile, some experts are not satisfied with the country’s 2030 emissions reduction target itself.

Jusen Asuka, a Tohoku University professor, said Japan should be more aware that its target is viewed as “inadequate” by outsiders, citing an analysis produced by four global climate research organizations, known as Climate Action Tracker.

On Japan, the group said, “If all countries adopted this level of ambition, average global temperature would likely rise 3 to 4 degrees C in the 21st century,” whereas the threshold vital to avoid the destructive, irreversible effects of climate change is regarded as below 2 degrees C.

“Japan is rated lower than the United States, China and the European Union. … The public should be more aware that there is a huge gap between Japan and the international community in terms of the momentum to keep global warming below 2 degrees,” Asuka said during a recent gathering in Tokyo.

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