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Climate Change

Japan targets 36-38% renewable energy, but emissions remain high

More than 10-point boost in fiscal 2030 goal clouded by unfocused policy

A solar power farm in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture: Japan has been slow in adopting renewable energy compared with countries like France.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Renewable energy will account for 36% to 38% of all electricity generated in Japan by fiscal 2030, the industry ministry said in a draft of its new energy plan released Wednesday, as the country struggles to catch other advanced economies in curbing emissions.

The target, presented by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to an energy advisory committee, represents a major upgrade from the goal of 22% to 24% by fiscal 2030, which was set in 2018.

Renewables accounted for about 20% of Japan's electricity in fiscal 2020.

METI hopes to gain cabinet approval for its ambitious plan by October. It will maintain its existing goal of raising the share of nuclear power to between 20% and 22%.

The new proposal comes amid growing international momentum in the fight against climate change. The United Nations is urging countries to phase out the use of coal to meet the goal set under the 2015 Paris climate accord to limit global warming to 1.5 C from preindustrial levels.

But Japan so far has struggled to kick its coal habit. Coal made up 32% of its electricity mix in fiscal 2019, with many of its nuclear plants still idled following the 2011 Fukushima disaster and renewables slow to gain momentum. Coal is expected to account for 19% of electricity generated in Japan in fiscal 2030, according to METI's plans.

Based on the new plan and data from the International Energy Agency, generating 1 kW of energy in Japan in fiscal 2030 would emit 0.26 kg of carbon dioxide, according to calculations by the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan.

This would be a significant reduction from 0.45 kg in 2018. However, even if all goes according to plan, Japan would still be far behind what countries with higher shares of renewable and nuclear energy have already achieved. France emitted 0.05 kg of carbon dioxide per kilowatt generated in 2018, while the U.K. emitted 0.21 kg.

With an eye on the Paris accord, Japan in April pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 46% by fiscal 2030 from fiscal 2013. The energy mix target announced Wednesday puts a greater focus on less carbon-intensive energy sources as part of those emission-cutting efforts.

Still, how Tokyo plans to achieve that goal is up in the air. For example, the Japanese government only has concrete plans to reach a 35% share for renewables. It still needs to figure out how exactly it will get to the 36-38% range.

Some officials in the government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are also reluctant to actively tap into nuclear power. The METI plan did not touch on medium- to long-term challenges in the field, like replacing aging facilities.

Taking a more comprehensive approach to climate-related policies, driven by independent agencies or the government, will be key to Japan's success. In the U.K., an advisory body called the Committee on Climate Change takes a leading role in crafting policies and targets on emissions reduction.

Storage batteries will also help increase the use of renewable energy. But the Japanese government has allocated a relatively small budget to the spread of the technology compared with the U.S. and Europe, which in turn has made the private sector wary of making large-scale investments toward decarbonization.

A lack of clear initiative on energy policy could hamper Japan's industrial competitiveness down the line as well.

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