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Japan’s lofty climate pledge demands radical energy innovation

  • April 23, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 5:14 a.m.
  • English Press

Nikkei staff writers


TOKYO — Japan promised a steeply higher emissions reduction goal at Thursday’s U.S.-led climate summit, but achieving it will require drastic steps such as ditching coal-fired power plants and replacing the nation’s car fleet with zero-emission models.


The new goal is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 46% from fiscal 2013 levels by fiscal 2030. The biggest hurdle is decarbonizing the energy sector, which generated about 40% of Japan’s carbon dioxide emissions in fiscal 2019.


More than 70% of Japan’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels, with such renewable sources as wind and solar making up 18%, and nuclear only 6%. It lags well behind Europe, where it is not uncommon for countries to meet more than half their energy needs with a combination of renewables and nuclear energy.


The Japanese government’s energy policy calls for boosting the combined share of renewables and nuclear power in the energy mix to between 42% and 46% by 2030.


But the Renewable Energy Institute here estimates that this would lower emissions from the energy sector by just 22% compared with fiscal 2013. Lifting renewables to 45% and eliminating coal power entirely would get the sector to a 47% reduction.


That said, even Tokyo’s current goals look dicey. Progress remains slow on restarting nuclear plants taken offline after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. There is interest in using preexisting equipment at fossil-fuel power facilities to burn hydrogen or ammonia, which do not produce carbon dioxide, but this is unlikely to contribute much in the short term.


Cleaner electricity generation will help realize the full benefits of shifting to electric vehicles, which do not generate emissions on their own but are only as clean as the power they run on.


About 14,000 electric autos were sold in Japan last year, making up less than 1% of new-vehicle sales. The government aims to phase out sales of conventional gasoline-only vehicles by 2035, promoting environmentally friendly models through such measures as subsidies.


But the country has about 78 million autos already on the road. Even if half of the roughly 5 million new vehicles sold each year are zero-emissions electric or fuel cell models, “replacing them all would take 30 years,” said Akio Toyoda, chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association and president of Toyota Motor.


China and the U.S., the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 CO2 emitters, too, face steep hurdles in meeting their pledged targets.

China, which plans to achieve net-zero carbon-dioxide emissions by 2060, is heavily reliant on coal. According to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, coal accounted for 57% of the nation’s primary energy in 2020. Given the likely economic impact on coal-producing regions, a major policy shift that will wean the nation off coal would be difficult.


U.S. President Joe Biden aims to cut emissions by 50% to 52% from 2005 levels by 2030 with the help of massive government spending that would help foster the renewable energy sector. But winning the support of the Congress would be a challenge given stiff resistance from Republican lawmakers, who argue that reducing reliance on fossil fuels would raise electric prices and lead to job losses.


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