Japan recently announced its intentions to back away from its previous emissions commitments. During UN climate talks in Warsaw, the country’s representatives said it would target a 3.8 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 versus 2005 levels — far below their previous pledge of a 25 percent overall cut. The change in course comes as the nation still debates its energy future after shutting down its nuclear energy program in the wake of the 2011 accident at Fukushima Daiichi.
Forum On Energy took a look at what this decision could mean for Japan moving forward.
CLIMATE CHANGE GOAL FACTS
At the Warsaw climate conference on November 15, Japan surprised delegates by announcing that instead of its previous plan to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by one-quarter below 1990 levels, it would actually increase them by 3 percent. The delegation attributed the emissions setback to the country’s halted nuclear program. The new target is seen by many as a large step backward for Japan, which is the world’s fifth-largest carbon dioxide emitter, behind China, the United States, India and Russia.
Before the 2011 tsunami and meltdowns at the Fukushima plant, nuclear power supplied more than 25 percent of Japan’s electricity base. Since then, the 50 operating reactors have been systematically shut down for safety inspections. The now-halted plants had previously been the basis for the aggressive carbon reduction goal, and Japan planned to supply increasing amounts of power with nuclear energy.
CLIMATE CHANGE AS AN ARGUMENT FOR NUCLEAR
The loss of nuclear energy as a resource has forced the country to import natural gas and coal, causing its greenhouse gas emissions to soar above target levels. This shift from a strong reliance on nuclear power constitutes a major policy change for Japan, which had previously planned to eventually provide 50 percent of electricity with nuclear power.
According to Bloomberg News, Minister of the Environment Nobuteru Ishihara said, “We don’t know yet what the operational status of nuclear power will be in 2020.This is an ambitious target we strive to achieve by putting in as much effort as possible while we try to achieve economic growth.”
Reuters reports that natural gas consumption by Japan’s ten utilities climbed 8.4 percent in October, while coal use also rose 4.4 percent when compared to 2012 levels as the country’s companies used more fossil fuels to compensate for the nuclear shutdown.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe supports a return to nuclear power, but faces much opposition. Abe has also advocated a reduction of Japan’s reliance on nuclear over time. Over the next three years, he also seeks to double the number of countries with which Japan has a bilateral agreement; there are currently eight countries signed up. Safety inspections of the shut down reactors will continue through the year, making the fastest possible restart in early 2014. However, there are no guarantees that the reactors will pass the NRA’s stringent safety tests.
Due to the urgency of the situation, Japan will have to make quick decisions regarding replacement power. Because Japan’s renewable power levels are still low following the previous reliance on nuclear, it will be difficult to replace base load power with anything but expensive natural gas or much cheaper coal. This takes any reduction in carbon emissions off the table for the foreseeable future.
While public opinion remains strongly against nuclear power, the weaker emissions commitment and increased dependence on fossil fuels may become a convincing argument for restarting reactors.