Post-Fukushima Japanese energy policy

Post-Fukushima Japan, realising that nuclear power is too costly and dangerous for a country exposed to natural events such as earthquakes, has opened up a debate. A new energy policy should be sustainable, and rely more on renewable energies.

Rui Faro Saraiva
24 August 2011

After the triple catastrophe of March 11, 2011, there is a groundswell in favour of profound change in Japanese energy policy. The debate on the energy issue has extended throughout Japanese society. The political elite, scholars and civil society are divided between the maintenance, reduction or elimination of nuclear energy in Japan. But the resigning Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, announced in July that Japan should focus on gradually eliminating its dependence on nuclear energy.

A new energy policy in Japan should be sustainable, relying more on renewable energies. While this debate opens up opportunities for other countries to share their know-how with Japan (e.g. Portugal’s renewable energy transition was a remarkable success), Japan also has a chance to reduce its dependence on other forms of energy. In 2008, Japan imported almost 99% of its oil, 98% of its coal, and 96% of its gas.  Most of the oil comes from the Middle East, particularly the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, and Kuwait.   For coal, Japan relies on Australia, China, Indonesia, Russia, the U.S., South Africa, and Canada.  Almost all of the domestic gas is imported, primarily from Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, Qatar, Brunei and the UAE (Harner, 2011).

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party have agreed that the Lower House of the Diet will pass a renewable energy bill that will allow industries consuming large amounts of power to secure considerable reductions in their electricity bills. According to a revised draft of the bill, special measures on renewable energy will force power companies to buy all electricity generated by solar and wind power stations (Nakagawa, 2011).

If Japan’s nuclear phase-out is to be achieved, only a long-term plan seems to be viable. In this regard, it is instructive to compare Germany's plans to phase-out nuclear energy by 2022. The German decision should be viewed in the context of an energy transition that began two decades ago. Germany started to encourage renewable electricity generation in 1991, which resulted in the Renewable Energy Act in 2000. The initial decision to phase out nuclear power was also endorsed in 2000 by the then Social Democrat/Green Party governing coalition. The decision was accompanied by a new energy plan that has accelerated a phase-in of renewable energy and energy efficiency (Morgan, 2011). Japan should take into account the German example. A nuclear phase-out and a sustainable renewable energy plan must come together to achieve energy efficiency and satisfy the country’s energy needs.

Still with the nuclear phase-out decision, Japan can assume international leadership on a global trend that is driving countries into developing renewable energies. Close to 80 percent of the world‘s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies. A new report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), indicates that the rising penetration of renewable energies could lead to cumulative greenhouse gas savings equivalent to 220 to 560 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtC02eq) between 2010 and 2050 (Eickemeier, 2011). The emergence of a Green Japanese Energy Policy can also serve as a soft power tool in international fora, enhancing the country’s diplomatic capabilities in bilateral or multilateral negotiations.    

But a nuclear phase-out in Japan also has its defence and security implications. Some of Japan’s nationalist and conservative policymakers have dreamed of converting the nation's civilian nuclear and space satellite programs into a military missile capability, deterring China and North Korea. This ambitious vision was stopped in its tracks by the tragic events of March 11. On August15, Japan commemorated the end of WWII in Hiroshima and other parts of the country. It is important to remind ourselves that Japan is the only country in the world that has lived through the trauma of the effects of a nuclear attack. Nuclear armament in Japan could shatter the country’s image as a civilian power and ruin the legitimacy of its foreign policy.

A more articulate decision-making process inside Japanese governmental institutions could also be one of the outcomes of the energy debate in Japan. The Japanese government is now seeking to incorporate a step that would allow the Energy and Environment Council of its cabinet to implement checks on future deliberations conducted by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Japan, post-Fukushima will inevitably reformulate its energy policy to take into account today’s global, regional and national challenges. Cooperation between Japan and some European partners could enhance its transition into a more effective and secure policy. Japan also has a chance to set an example and lead the way in this age of global warming and climate change. Japan’s resilience in facing up to its  difficulties and obstacles will not be the only lesson for other nations. Japan but may yet help shape the trends of energy policymaking across the globe.

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