Cut emissions without nuclear power

It sounds as if Japan is telling the world that it cannot do much to cut its greenhouse gas emissions unless it revives its nuclear power generation. The government says its new goal for reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions — which aims at a 3.8 percent cut from 2005 levels by 2020 but allows for a 3.1 percent increase from the 1990 levels — is the best it can pledge as long as prospects for restarting Japan’s nuclear power plants remains low.

The new target set by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe underscored the nation’s reliance on nuclear power generation — which in theory emits no carbon dioxide — as a means of combating global warming, while efforts to cut carbon output in various sectors of the economy and increase use of renewable energy have made little headway. The government reportedly plans to review the new target — which has been widely criticized as a major setback in Japan’s position on climate change — as it discusses plans for the nation’s new energy mix. But what it needs to do is to explore ways for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that will not depend on the use of nuclear power.

The new target replaces the one set in 2009 by the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 25 percent from 1990 levels, which assumed that the share of nuclear power in Japan’s electricity generation would increase to 40 percent in 2020. That scenario was shattered by the March 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. Today none of the nation’s 50 nuclear reactors are online and the gap in power supply is being filled by thermal power generation using fossil fuels.

In setting the new target, the Abe administration changed the base year from 1990, the base year for the Kyoto Protocol, to 2005. Since Japan’s emissions increased 7 percent from 1990 to 2007, that means the nation will be allowed to produce more greenhouse gases in 2020 than in 1990. And of the 3.8 percent reduction target from 2005, 2.8 points are attributed to forestry absorption, which means actual emissions can increase substantially.

Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, Japan committed to a 6 percent cut in its emissions from 1990 levels in the 2009-2012 commitment period. The government has announced that emissions had been reduced by 8.2 percent from 1990 levels, according to preliminary figures. But the Japanese economy has not been transformed into a low-carbon structure. Industrial-sector emission cuts are made on a voluntary basis and the amount of emissions fluctuated depending on the state of the economy. Japan’s emissions fell sharply in 2009 due to the slump amid the global recession. The obligation under the Kyoto pact was fulfilled partly because Japan purchased emissions credits from overseas and counted forestry absorption. However, emissions in 2011 and 2012 surged and topped 1990 levels as thermal power generation increased.

While dismissing the zero-nuclear policy as an “unrealistic” option in Japan’s energy policy, Abe has pledged to reduce the nation’s reliance on nuclear power as much as possible. Japan must develop ways to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions without depending on nuclear power.