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Japan spends scant energy on renewables

by Philip Brasor

Dec. 11, 2017, marked the 20th anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty signed by 84 countries who committed to limit the release of greenhouse gases, which are considered the cause of global warming. Japan, of course, was one of the signatories, and a Dec. 14 feature in the Asahi Shimbun reviewed Japan’s performance in carrying out the protocol’s aims.

When the treaty was signed in 1997, a prevailing opinion was that any measures taken to halt global warming interfered with economic growth, which is why developing countries had such a hard time with it. However, as Asahi points out, many of these measures subsequently turned into growth-oriented “business opportunities,” mainly in the realm of renewables.

Everyone believes Japan suffered a huge setback in its emissions goals after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, which caused a meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station that, in turn, led to all the country’s nuclear reactors being shut down. As a result, Japan started importing and using more fossil fuels, leading to higher carbon-dioxide emission levels. Some people, including environmentalists, have urged Japan to put nuclear power reactors back online in order to reduce these emissions, which, beyond how they exacerbate climate change, have the more immediate effect of causing disease and death through air pollution.

But Asahi points out that Japanese CO2 levels were not dropping even before the accident. In accordance with the Kyoto Protocol, Japan pledged to reduce its greenhouse emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels in the first phase of the agreement, from 2008 to 2012. During that period Japanese emissions actually increased by an average of 1.4 percent a year, but due to the purchase of emissions credits from countries that exceeded their reduction targets and absorption of CO2 through Japanese forests, Japan was able to reach its target.

More significantly, the increase in CO2 was accompanied by a loss of GDP. In 1997, Japan ranked fourth among OECD countries in terms of per capita GDP, but had dropped to 19th by 2014. Similarly, in 1997 Japan was fifth in terms of “CO2 productivity” — the amount of money made per ton of CO2 emissions — and 20th in 2014.

So while the country was producing more CO2 under the Kyoto Protocol, it was also losing money while doing so, especially when you compare Japanese growth and emissions reduction to those in other countries. Between 2002 and 2014, the U.K.’s nominal GDP rose by 62.1 percent and its emissions dropped by 24.8 percent; Germany, 32 percent and 13 percent, respectively; even the U.S., which scorned the Kyoto Protocol under George W. Bush, posted 58 percent growth and 4.4 percent reductions. Japan, however, saw negative growth of -0.4 percent while reducing CO2 by only 1.9 percent.

The reason, according to Hikaru Kobayashi, an economics professor at Keio University who helped negotiate the protocol, is that other countries bolstered their efforts to reduce emissions by investing in technologies centered on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Japan did not. And since 2011, the government, working with power utilities and the media, have pushed the narrative that nuclear power is the only effective means of reducing emissions.

This narrative is important because the public’s concerns over its energy needs come down to two things: cost and safety. Climate change is not paramount in the average person’s mind. They want cheap energy and they don’t want to live near a nuclear reactor, regardless of arguments that say radiation from the Fukushima meltdown is not as dangerous as people think. Commercial media are married to the government line because power utilities spend a lot of money on advertising, despite the fact that, until recently, they faced no competition as regional monopolies.

A prime example of this sort of advertising was a controversial 2016 commercial broadcast in Niigata Prefecture extolling the safety measures to be implemented for the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant when it goes back online.

With this scenario in mind, it was interesting to watch NHK’s Dec. 17 documentary about the “business” of renewable energy throughout the world, most of which was recorded at the recent COP23 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bonn, where Japan was more of an observer than a participant.

The program pointed out that most developed countries, including the two top CO2 producers— the U.S. and China — are aggressively adopting renewables, and while they may have been prompted to do so as a response to climate change, they have embraced these new energy sources because they can make money out of them. In that regard, Japan is seen as being way behind the curve. As international business people told NHK during the course of their coverage, Japan has relinquished its role as a technology innovator owing to its stake in coal, which it wants to export to other countries.

The program hardly mentioned nuclear energy at all, possibly because the impetus of the global renewables offensive is the defeat of fossil fuels as a primary energy source. The theme was that Japan is missing out on economic growth opportunities by ignoring renewable energy. NHK is the only broadcaster who could ever say such a thing since it doesn’t rely financially on sponsors such as Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (Tepco), which discourages the development of renewables if it interferes with its mission to revive nuclear power.

Last week, the Asahi Shimbun reported on a proposed Diet bill, drawn up by a citizens group headed by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, that would force utilities such as Tepco to shift transmission capacity reserved for nuclear power — and which isn’t being used now — to renewables. Many startup energy companies are failing because they don’t have access to transmission cables, which are still owned by the former monopolies.

Obviously, lack of business savvy isn’t the main reason Japan is missing out on the worldwide renewable energy boom.