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Opinion

Suga's green energy plan needs to woo older rural men to succeed

Dictum that 'all politics is local' is nowhere more true than in Japan

| Japan
Wind turbines in Akita Prefecture: residents claim wind blades are annoying. (Photo by Mamoru Tsuge)

Yuriy Humber is president of Yuri Group and founder of the Japan NRG platform, which publishes weekly reports about the state of energy and electricity in Japan.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has declared on the world stage that Japan is committed to a green energy future. For this to become a reality, however, Japan's older, rural gentlemen will need to have something at stake. And, it cannot just be the idea of saving the planet.

In the recent rush of climate-friendly declarations, Suga has signed up to a raft of highly ambitious targets on renewable energy, including a massive 46% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by fiscal 2030 from fiscal 2013 levels. While many will ask if major Japanese companies are ready -- and able -- to follow, it is even more important to check on the mood of the people outside Tokyo and other big cities.

After all, it will not be Tokyo playing host to new wind farms or geothermal turbines.

On the face of it, all of Japan is on board with the green plan. More than 300 municipalities have vowed to become carbon neutral by 2050. Around 100 might even get there by the end of this decade, according to some hopeful bureaucratic estimates.

But, here is another statistic. The number of localities passing bylaws to restrict or outright ban renewables projects has jumped by a factor of five in the last five years to 134 municipalities, according to a report published this month by the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Trade.

Residents claim panels are an eyesore and wind blades are noisy, disturbing their sleep. A spate of accidents in which solar panels fell from roofs resulted in several localities classifying them as a safety hazard.

The geothermal potential of Japan is well documented, as is the reason only 2% of it is utilized: fear that it will hurt the business of rural hot bath resorts. Then there is the group of surfers lobbying against a wind project in Akita Prefecture, claiming its turbines will alter the size of the waves.

Wasabizawa geothermal power station in Akita Prefecture: one of a few sites where any opposition movements did not arise. (Photo by Shuhei Ochiai)

Here is another thing to consider: If the government's latest declarations were such a positive signal for renewable energy in Japan, then why is Goldman Sachs reportedly seeking to exit the business?

If having a green-minded government policy were enough to spark the revolution, we would also expect the country's major power companies to have more than 25 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity -- including projects overseas -- in the pipeline for the next 15 years or so. For comparison, China added 40 GW of solar last year alone.

One answer to the above is that dealing with land rights and rural bureaucracies in Japan is a lot of work, and most big utilities do not believe it is worth the hassle. As a consequence, there is no large energy company in Japan committed primarily to renewables. Another answer lies in the lack of incentives for Japan's rural communities.

Professor Yasushi Maruyama of Nagoya University spelled this out at a government meeting of the National and Local Committee for Promoting Decarbonization: "If the national government and [big] business simply say, 'This is for the sake of the planet and the environment,' nothing will get done."

For the decarbonization agenda to be realized, businesses need to show how they will "contribute" to the local community, and local governments and residents must be involved, professor Maruyama explained.

Put another way, communities outside big cities want compensation to get onboard. And the most effective way of doing that is, arguably, through its older male contingent.

Take the Akita Prefecture wind farm project protested by the group of surfers. It was also initially opposed by the local fishing cooperative. An idea emerged that 1% of the future wind farm's revenue could go to the cooperative to compensate members for lost fishing grounds. The group is now a ferocious supporter.

Fisheries may account for barely 0.2% of all employment in Japan, but few coastline developments take place without their blessing. Just ask Tokyo Disneyland.

Construction and facility maintenance companies are another major voice with an uncanny sway over local politics. It is partly these stakeholders that eased the rural acceptance of the build-out of nuclear power in the 1970s.

As importantly, the local contribution will need to come through jobs. If green energy is to play a greater role in Japan, it will need to find a home for at least some of the workers currently employed by coal, oil and gas-fired plants. Completely shutting down these would see the bulk of job losses occurring in rural areas where other employment is hard to come by.

The electricity, gas and water utilities sector provided 280,000 jobs as of 2019. It also had the highest gender imbalance, with men accounting for 85.7% of all workers.

These workers may look to the renewables industry to pick them up and offer the same stable employment that decarbonization policies took away. That will be difficult as Japan's manufacturing base in solar and wind is shrinking, around 80 solar companies go bust each year, and renewable energy projects often require few local employees.

The renewable energy industry will need to stimulate new employment and revenue-sharing opportunities to engage local communities. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Suga's decarbonization strategy includes hydrogen, carbon capture and nuclear, perhaps as much for the jobs as for the environmental impact.

The key to making decarbonization a success will be to offer rural Japan tangible economic benefits, not visions of saving the planet.

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