Japan on its Way to a Decarbonized Society

Since the end of 2015, over 190 countries have adopted the Paris Climate Agreement. The agreement focuses on mutual financial and technological support in limiting global warming. Additionally, more developed partners envisage capacity-building assistance to developing countries. Even though Japan has one of the highest volumes of carbon emissions per capita (ranking 8th globally), it wants to become a role model in combating climate change.

In October 2020, the new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared Japan will become carbon-neutral and reduce greenhouse emissions to net-zero by 2050. It was quite a change from a previous pledge to reduce emissions by 80% in the same timeframe. The new plan puts Japan on the same page with European Union and its target, however, the aim is challenging to achieve because Japan relies primarily on coal and other fossil fuels. Moreover, the Fukushima nuclear disaster increased public opposition towards the reliance on nuclear power. The new declaration entails increasing the share of renewable energy sources (RES) in energy policy and reducing the consumption of oil, coal, and gas. Such provisions will require a radical change in the country’s energy structure and parts of its industry.

Japanese Energy Sources

Japan’s energy security depends on suppliers of energy resources. Japan has practically no energy deposits of its own and therefore imports them from all over the world. Crude oil comes mainly from the Middle East, while coal is shipped in from Australia and Indonesia. Natural gas comes from the Middle East and East Asia-Oceania. This is a significant challenge for energy security. Increasing the share of RES in the Japanese energy sector will allow for greater independence in the economic and political scopes.

 In 2019, clean energy sources (renewable energy and nuclear energy) accounted for only 13% of energy used. The vast majority are, in turn: oil (40%), coal (26%), and natural gas (21%). These are high-emission fuels that all come from abroad.

Currently, hydropower and solar energy occupy Japan’s largest share among RES. Even though Japan has the third-highest potential for geothermal energy globally, the potential is challenging to harness due to mountainous landscapes.

Obstacles to Green Energy

It is worth mentioning that investing in clean energy is expensive. The development of technology, unique raw materials (such as rare metals), and production and assembly require significant amounts of money. Increasingly safer nuclear reactors (currently III and III+ generations), photovoltaic panels, and extensive wind farms are expensive but necessary to achieve carbon-neutrality.

Apart from costs, one cannot forget about geographic conditions. Safely erecting and using a reactor safely in Japan is problematic because it lies at the interface of several tectonic plates, resulting in multiple earthquakes and the threat of volcanic eruption. Moreover, the Japanese Islands are plagued by typhoons and tsunamis, so the location of renewable energy plants in coastal waters carries a real risk of damaging the power grid.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 resulted in anti-nuclear protests in Japan and increased the country’s reliance on fossil fuel energy. After the disaster, Japan decreased its dependence on nuclear power. Now only nine of the country’s 39 nuclear reactors are operating. The situation resulted in the need for alternative sources of electricity generation.

Also, locations where geothermal networks can be established have limited range and are not found in every corner of the country. In the case of increasing the share of biomass in energy production, it should be remembered that Japan is not known for its extensive farmland. On the contrary, as a predominantly mountainous country, it has quite limited arable lands.

Japan has a great renewable energy potential as one of the most technically advanced countries. However, what is interesting, many Japanese investors invest in renewable energy projects overseas instead of focusing on the green energy projects at home.

Planned Changes

Japan’s energy policy follows the rules of the “three E plus S”: energy security, economic efficiency, environmental sustainability, and safety. Plans for 2030 focus on diversification of energy and include a sevenfold increase in the share of energy from reactors. Japan’s fear of the Fukushima plant crash is slowly calming down in the face of climate change. The Strategic Energy Plan from 2018 doesn’t only aim to enhance the efficiency of fossil fuel use, but also to reduce energy demand.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry formulated “Green Growth Strategy Through Achieving Carbon Neutrality in 2050”, which announces plans of growth in all known areas of energy. Hydroelectric power plants can be built on rivers and coasts. Wind turbines and solar panels can be placed offshore. Geothermal energy is to be used on a scale larger than a relaxing Onsen bath.

Green Energy as the Future of Japan

To fulfill Suga’s declaration, Japan needs to increase the share of renewable energy sources in its energy policy and reduce oil, coal, and gas consumption. Such provisions will require a radical change in the country’s energy structure and parts of its industry. However, the plan might result in the creation of over 65,000 new jobs by 2050. To reduce greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050, the Japanese government depends mostly on technological development in hydrogen and energy storage areas and energy security improvements. The way to decarbonized society is not just about changing the source of energy. An important factor is the reduction of its consumption and the use of fewer raw materials that cause environmental pollution.