Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The importance of having a U.S. leader like Joe Biden, who has come to believe in the necessity of drastically cutting the emission of greenhouse gases, was demonstrated Wednesday when Japan announced that it was doubling its proposed cuts to carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. This according to Reuters.
Japan seeks to emit only about half (46%) as much CO2 in 2030 as it did in 2013. Previously, it had only committed to get down to about three-fourths of its 2013 levels in a decade.
Last fall, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged for the first time to get Japan to zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.
This week, Reuters says, the Bank of Japan announced that it would invest some of its $70 billion in reserves in green bonds around the world to support the transition to renewables.
With a nominal gross domestic product $5.7 trillion, Japan is the world’s third-largest economy and the second-largest economy after the U.S. in the developed world. It has dragged its feet on the energy transition, largely turning to fossil fuels to replace the nuclear energy lost after the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster caused by a tsunami.
Reuters reports that the new targets doubling CO2 reductions by 2030 were “responding to pressure from the United States as world leaders met for a climate summit hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden.”
With the turn of the Xi Jinping government in China to an aggressive nationalist chauvinism very unlike the “harmonious development” doctrine from the 1980s through 2012, Japan has become alarmed and has clung to the U.S. security umbrella more zealously. Likewise, Japan feels threatened by North Korean belligerence. Japan’s leadership therefore feels it is wise to please the U.S. where it can do so without compromising national interests or principle. Many countries around the world have a similar attitude to the U.S., and Joe Biden, unlike his predecessor, knows how to work that global room. Not only will Biden’s green energy projects, which will likely be in the second Democratic reconciliation bill, be good for the U.S., but they will have an echo throughout the parts of the world that take their cue from Washington.
Japan is committing itself to getting as much as 38% of its electricity from renewables by 2030, up from only 18% today. This is huge, because it seems likely that once the Japanese go that big into renewables, they will make technological and price breakthroughs that will allow them to surpass the goal they set.
Japan still hopes to get more of the 50 nuclear power plants shut down in 2011 back on line (only 6 are now operating), so that as much as 22% of its electricity will come from that source in ten years. In turn, the Suga government hopes to cut coal from 26% of the electricity mix to 19%, and to cut natural gas from 56% to 41%.
Not only will Japan make steps to wean itself off coal, the dirtiest fuel, but it will try to close 100 of the 114 worst-polluting coal plants in the country. There are 140 coal plants in Japan. So not only will coal provide less than a fifth of the country’s energy in a decade but those remaining plants will be more efficient and will produce somewhat fewer CO2 emissions. Moreover, after the coal plants now in the pipeline are finished, Japan has no further plans for coal plants.
Japan should try to get off coal entirely by 2030– replacing it all by natural gas and renewables would be preferable to continuing to operate coal plants and would greatly reduce emissions. Governments are, however, often afraid of a backlash from both workers and companies in the coal sector if they move too fast against this industry, and Japanese politicians do have to run for office.
Still, it is the G20 countries (the richest twenty in the world) that produce most of the greenhouse emissions, and for Japan to accelerate its energy transition in this way is consequential. I have a lot of faith in Japanese technology, and I’m hoping that if they turn their minds to it, they will be able to make real breakthroughs in renewables.
To the extent that Biden is exerting this pressure on US allies, he is playing a pivotal role in our global turn to renewables.