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Opinion

There are good reasons to celebrate Japan's decarbonization pledge

In praise of the lack of detail in Yoshihide Suga's energy plan

| Japan
A wind turbine at the Hama Wing wind power station in Yokohama: Suga will likely want to see more than a few road maps.   © Getty Images

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.

No sooner had Japan declared its 2050 goal to decarbonize, than priggish pundits began pointing out its flaws, the main one being that it is little more than a distant target, with few details or even a road map. In actual fact we should be rejoicing in Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's broad strokes.

Japan -- famous for obsessing over planning, details, and consensus -- has boldly thrown down a marker. Likely to have been in the works for months, if not years, the pledge lacks the tiny-font instructions and charts that complicate most Japanese government PowerPoint presentations. The result has been a temporary vacuum, in which the nation's various energy lobbies are fervently competing for attention.

There are good reasons to celebrate Suga's vision-first approach. For one, it was the honest thing to do. No single government, company or entity in the world today has immediate answers on how to decarbonize industrial society. The challenge is vast, the unknowns numerous. To name but a few: does carbon capture technology really work? Can we cut the price of hydrogen while using green energy? Is biomass sustainable? What is the real cost of nuclear energy? Answers may take years, but the vision should not wait.

Secondly, Suga's lack of detail has prompted genuine debate. And unlike other Japanese policy development, this debate is out in the open. Nikkei Asia's own pages teem with conflicting ideologies: some endorse nuclear, others demand all-in commitment to renewables. There are even people arguing that forgoing coal is a mistake. Such a debate is vital if Japan is to implement a real energy transition, because as exciting as that sounds, the process itself will be devastating.

Take the extreme -- but no longer niche -- view that we should switch to 100% renewable energy within this decade, as Google aims to do for its data centers and offices. If Japan were to shutter all coal, oil, and nuclear generation within 10 years, it would decimate the economy and society. Major industrial plants would lose competitiveness. In addition to all the brownouts, electricity prices would soar. And that is just the start.

A sudden full-course change is impractical because renewables still make up less than a quarter of Japan's electricity mix. Even if, as some argue, we immediately divert all the money currently going into fossil fuels and nuclear toward green energy, it is still no solution. Japan's current grid is not built to handle a high ratio of intermittent power and could not handle even a 50% contribution from renewables without major investments and adjustments.

Japan's current grid is not built to handle a high ratio of intermittent power. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

If everyone employed in energy outside of renewable sources loses their job, mass unemployment and social resentment toward green power would follow. Japan's nuclear industry alone directly employs around 50,000 people. It is no surprise then that a recent survey in Fukui prefecture, which hosts the most nuclear stations of any region in Japan, indicated that most people were skeptical about the switch to wind farms.

Workers carry out an extraordinary inspection over a reactor containment vessel at Kansai Electric Power's Mihama nuclear plant: Japan's nuclear industry directly employs around 50,000 people. (Photo by Konosuke Urata)

Japan has neither a ready supply of raw materials, nor the solar and wind manufacturing assets to support a full-blown green revolution. Shutting down nuclear would also complicate Japan's alliance with the U.S. Encouraging more solar and wind projects would mean revamping Japan's laws on land rights and land use, which would require a minor revolution given the history of land rights in Japan.

All of the above is not an argument against 100% renewables. But moving toward that goal -- if that is recognized as the best solution -- should not disenfranchise large swathes of society.

Of course, debate is also taking place within government. Earlier this month, Suga's government announced an action plan that includes setting up a national council of experts and business representatives for decarbonization. Another part of the plan is the establishment of a fund that supports technology aligned with the 2050 mission, including in the field of batteries, hydrogen, and carbon capture.

It is easy to dismiss the above as more bureaucratic fetishism, and the creation of yet another committee that will not actually commit to anything. However, knowing the scope of the issues involved, Suga will likely want to see more than a few road maps for Japan's energy transition. What is even better than stimulating debate is having a deadline by which that debate has to be resolved. Luckily, we have that too.

By the summer of 2021, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is due to publish a revised future energy mix, which should detail what component each energy source is expected to contribute by 2030. In November, Suga is due to attend the 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties, or COP 26, in Glasgow, by which time Japan will need to detail the extent of its new Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, in other words the level of greenhouse gas emissions cuts.

METI's revised energy mix would naturally affect the emissions targets, so it is reasonable to assume that substantial details of Suga's 2050 net-zero plan could emerge within three to four months. Given the scale of what Japan has to achieve, that is not so long to wait.

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