National | G20 Osaka Summit Special

Changing Environment

Japan weighs strategy after shocking climate report

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that sent shock waves around the globe. The world’s leading body of climate scientists warned that there might be only 12 years left to ensure global warming is kept to a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Beyond that, the IPCC said, the risk of droughts, floods and extreme heat greatly increase.

“Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” the report said.

The 1.5 degree figure represents the ideal goal under the 2015 Paris climate change agreement. Nations pledged to respond to the threat of global warming by “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”

Under the Paris accord, Japan must cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 26 percent compared with 2013 by 2030. But the October 2018 IPCC report has helped spur efforts by Japanese corporations, local governments and nongovernmental organizations to push the central government to go further.

The central government is also now debating a new strategy to cut greenhouse gas emissions even more as it resists calls within and outside Japan to completely phase out the use of coal by midcentury.

Under a 2006 set of IPCC guidelines, Japan released an annual report on its greenhouse gas emissions, called the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory. The latest report for 2019 covers emissions in the fiscal 2017 period (April 2017 to March 2018). During that time, total emissions of seven greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorinated compounds, sulfur hexafluoride and nitrogen trifluoride — amounted to nearly 1.3 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. While the figure marked a 1.2 percent decline compared with the previous fiscal year, it was a 1.3 percent increase compared with 1990, the base year countries use to calculate changes in their emissions.

With climate change on the agenda for the Group of 20 Summit in Osaka later this month, there are likely to be discussions on Japan’s “Society 5.0” policy initiative. The initiative integrates physical space and cyberspace under which technological developments can be applied to overcome long-term problems the country — and the world — have struggled with, including climate change.

Society 5.0 promotes the further development of artificial intelligence and the increased use of data storage on the internet to tackle a variety of economic and social problems, but is also intended to help the world achieve a more decarbonized society and the more efficient and sustainable use of natural resources.

Two environmental issues in particular helped form the basis of the Society 5.0 goals. These include a worldwide need to reduce GHG emissions and food loss while increasing energy and food production for a world population that continues to grow overall, but where certain nations — including Japan — are declining and graying.

Via more integrated data systems that use internet cloud storage, the industrial and agricultural sectors can operate more efficiently, not only economically, but also environmentally. With everything from weather information to the available amount and price of nonfossil fuel generated electricity at any given time, the sectors will be able to make quick decisions based on such data.

Japan’s energy sector accounted for 88 percent of total emissions, the industrial sector accounted for 7.7 percent, the agricultural sector 2.6 percent and the waste sector 1.6 percent. Indirect carbon dioxide emissions amounted to just under 1 percent of the total.

Estimated GHG emissions from waste incineration in fiscal 2017 amounted to 12,238 kilotons equivalent of carbon dioxide.

That’s less than 1 percent of the 1.3 million tons in total GHG emissions, but it represents a nearly 12 percent decrease compared with the 1990 base year used for calculating greenhouse gas inventories.

Emissions from fossil-fuel derived waste, including plastics, cardboard, synthetic textiles and waste oil, accounted for 10,808 of the total 12,238-kiloton carbon dioxide equivalent.

The remainder came from incineration of waste that was either a mixture of fossil fuel derived and biogenic or purely biogenic.

But it is emissions from coal power plants, in particular, that political entities, businesses, nongovernmental organizations and the media in Japan have focused on since the October 2018 IPCC warning.

In November, the environmental group Kiko Forum released a report on how the country could also phase out coal by 2030 without threatening Japan’s electrical power supply and without relying on nuclear power.

“The Japanese government should devise a detailed path for the retirement of coal, formulate an official Japan 2030 Coal Phase-Out Plan, and give it a high priority as part of a long-term low GHG development strategy,” Kimiko Hirata, international director for Kiko Network, said in a statement announcing the report.

Kiko Forum called for new legislation to implement a coal phase-out and to revise the current energy mix for 2030, which calls for coal to provide 26 percent of Japan’s electricity supply.

“The 2030 GHG reduction goal of 26 percent should be increased to 40 or 50 percent,” Kiko Forum said.

The report said there were 117 units at existing coal power plants in Japan as of April last year. Gradually retiring them by 2030 is achievable without impacting the power supply or using nuclear power if the use of liquid natural gas is considered, renewable energy usage spreads, and progress continues to be made in energy efficiency, the report said. Calls to decarbonize even further also came from the Japan Climate Initiative, a group formed earlier this year that consists of 264 companies along with 30 cities and municipalities.

A May 16 letter signed by 26 local governments, including Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kyoto, Sapporo and Kitakyushu, as well as 143 banks, financial institutions, construction companies, manufacturing firms, renewable energy suppliers and others, including The Japan Times, warned that the October 2018 IPCC report showed the world needs to reach “net zero” by 2050 and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 45 percent relative to 2010 levels in order to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 C.

“In the Japanese context, the most important set of measures to realize a decarbonized society is to promote energy efficiency in a comprehensive manner and maximize the use of renewable energy,” the letter read.

“Many companies and local governments in Japan are starting to work beyond the conventional government plans to achieve greater use of renewable energy and zero emissions,” it concluded. “If the government issues a clear message for decarbonization, it will further accelerate the leading efforts by private sectors and local governments. We strongly ask for a more ambitious long-term strategy that shows Japan’s leadership to the world when it comes to addressing climate change.”

Such calls are also coming at a time when renewable electricity prices are coming down and when utilities and firms are rethinking their commitment to coal. Kansai Electric Power Co. has announced it will expand its renewable energy portfolio to six gigawatts, the equivalent of nearly four large-scale nuclear power plants, by 2030.

Marubeni Corp. has announced a target of doubling its renewable energy revenues by 2023. Last year, Marubeni said it was getting out of coal. Meanwhile, three coal power plant projects have already been canceled in Japan this year.

Coal is supposed to account for 26 percent of Japan’s energy mix in 2030 under a plan approved in 2015. It accounted for 28 percent of Japan’s electric power in 2018, according to an estimate by the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies and based on data from the Federation of Electric Power Companies.

Faced with a swell of support since the October 2018 report from leading Japanese industries, local governments and the general public for stronger decarbonization measures, the central government is responding.

In April, a panel preparing a new long-term climate change strategy called for more renewable energy and less coal power, though it did not endorse a complete phase-out that environmental groups say is critical to helping meet the goals of the Paris agreement. The final draft is expected to be ready by the end of this month, in time for the G20 Summit.

“Responding to climate change is no longer a cost for the economy, but a growth strategy for the future. By firmly creating a virtuous cycle between the environment and growth, Japan will take the lead in making a paradigm shift in global environmental policy,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said during a meeting on June 11 to discuss a long-term growth strategy under the Paris agreement.

Given the severity of the crisis and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly in not only Japan, but also worldwide, that shift is needed now more than ever.

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