Commentary / Japan

Japan’s decarbonization challenge

by Yoichi Funabashi

The Paris climate agreement set a decarbonization target of net zero emissions of greenhouse gases in the latter half of the 21st century. For Japan, which ratified the pact in 2016, energy policy (and related industrial and national land planning policies) aimed at eliminating carbon emissions are of pressing concern.

However, Japan finds itself in a troubled position. The nation’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions have increased since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. This makes for an unfavorable contrast with Britain and France, which have managed to steadily reduce per capita carbon emissions. (Germany has been slow in reducing its levels.)

With its energy conservation measures and strict regulations on exhaust gas, Japan was once a world leader when it came to low carbon initiatives. But the nation has made little progress toward the current goal of decarbonization.

For Japan to pursue decarbonization, renewable sources of energy must be positioned as the primary source of power supply, while nuclear power should be maintained as an option from the standpoint of the nation’s energy security — albeit at the minimum necessary level. I believe this combination is the most realistic choice.

It would be far too risky for Japan to focus exclusively on either renewables or nuclear energy — both power sources are deemed useful for decarbonization. Renewables can be susceptible to fluctuations in natural conditions, while nuclear energy poses the risk of accidents and threats to public safety.

Practically speaking, Japan will also have to continue using fossil fuels over a long period. However, this inevitably poses geopolitical risks, and upheavals in the global balance of power will only complicate the situation in the future. Rapid economic growth in China, India and Southeast Asia has prompted a surge in local energy demand. It is predicted that annual needs in these areas will soon equal the combined demand in the United States, Europe and Japan.

Moreover, the energy landscape of the future will be altered dramatically by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the energy system of which is characterized by the overarching trends of deregulation, decentralization, decarbonization, depopulation and digitalization. The changes will be driven by innovations in electric vehicles, battery technology, rare metals, robotics, artificial intelligence and data. A vast new ecosystem will emerge as energy deepens its linkages to other business sectors and integrates with other industries.

In the words of Francis O’Sullivan, director of research at the MIT Energy Initiative, “We are moving from a world where the value of the energy is embedded in the resource to where technology is the resource.” The players controlling core content — including core technologies and resources, standard interfaces and platforms for core data — stand to conquer the global market. Both China and Europe are supporting the simultaneous development of unified backbone power grids across borders and the transition to Utility 3.0, prompting the emergence of new global players in terms of both their scale and activities.

A fierce international conflict looms as countries race to achieve hegemonic status in energy technology under the common slogan of “decarbonization.” But the risks associated with reliance on another country for rare earth metals used in energy storage and cutting-edge technologies will not disappear.

Japan should not pursue decarbonization as a duty, but rather as a means of improving its national energy security. Neither renewables nor nuclear energy should be treated as the “correct” or “right” answer. Japan must precisely evaluate and manage the risks associated with every energy source, and reap the fruits of technological innovation with an eye to the optimal combination of energy sources. Countries that cannot achieve their own energy security won’t be able to fulfill their international obligation regarding decarbonization.

As a reporter I covered the 1973 oil crisis — the first and greatest crisis to confront postwar Japan. While the oil crisis put an end to Japan’s period of rapid postwar growth, it also led to the emergence of “energy conservation” as a new national goal and a source of innovation and competitiveness.

In 1973, Japan’s fossil fuel imports as a percentage of GDP was 1.9 percent. Today it is 3.2 percent. Japan’s energy security is even more fragile today than it was at the time of the oil crisis.

This brings to mind something I was once told by Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister and founding father of Singapore. Lee visited Japan in May 1975 and as usual stayed at the Imperial Hotel. He found his room to be extremely warm, and the thermostat display indicated a temperature of 26 degrees. However, Lee also noticed that the hotel had posted an explanation of its energy conservation measures, which politely asked guests for their cooperation. A hotel employee would immediately make the rounds of vacated rooms, turning off the lights and air conditioning.

Lee told me: “I thought the oil crisis would be the end of Japan as an economic power, but that visit changed my point of view. I grew confident that Japan would recover, and in fact, by 1979 Japan had made a comeback. I realized there were still many things we could learn from Japan.”

What innovations will fuel the comeback of Japan in the post-Fukushima era? What can the rest of the world learn from Japan? It is once again time for Japan to live up to Lee’s expectations.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.