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Editorial: Japan's halt of 100 coal-fired generators no victory for decarbonization

All eyes are on Japan to see if it is truly going to shift gears and decarbonize to help avoid a worldwide climate crisis.

The Japanese government announced that it would shut down 90% of its old-style coal-fired power plants that emit large volumes of carbon dioxide by fiscal 2030. This means that around 100 generators are expected to be phased out.

The plan is to compensate for the decrease in power supply with renewable energy and nuclear power. Meanwhile, the government is planning to maintain or expand 26 of a new type of coal-fired generator, and will continue to export them as well.

After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear disaster, Japan's reliance on coal grew as it became difficult to restart its nuclear reactors. Coal-based energy now accounts for over 30% of Japan's total energy production.

In contrast, the move to abandon carbon accelerated worldwide after the Paris Agreement to stop global warming went into effect in 2016. In Europe, country after country revealed they were completely phasing out coal-generated power. Western funds and banks have stopped investing in and loaning to businesses tied to coal-generated power.

Japan has been the target of harsh global criticism for not being able to wean itself from coal-fired power although it has been nine years since the 2011 triple disaster. In industrial circles, some worried that "if the Japanese government remained passive toward preventing global warming, it would have deleterious effects on doing business with companies and governments overseas."

Now the government is finally re-examining its energy policy, but it will not take the major step of shutting down all coal-fired generators. Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama emphasizes that "Japan, which lacks natural resources, requires a variety of power sources." But the amount of carbon emissions that the new type of coal-fired generators produce is at best 30% less than the old-style generators that are being phased out. We don't know if the international community will find this acceptable.

Finding a balance between energy sources and a stable supply of power is a major challenge. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is aiming for a return to nuclear power. But the public deeply distrusts nuclear power because of the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. Resistance to resuming the operation of nuclear reactors is inevitable, and nuclear power is unlikely to fill the energy supply void that shutting down all coal-fired generators would create.

One of renewable energy's weaknesses is that it is influenced by the weather. To make full use of renewables, we need a national commitment to such efforts as technological innovations in rechargeable batteries and updating the power grid. In the meantime, we would have to get by on liquid natural gas (LNG)-generated power, which emits relatively little carbon.

In the Strategic Energy Plan that will be amended in 2021, it will be necessary to present a vision of a decarbonized future. It will require a new strategy, in which we set a goal time for when renewable energy will become our core source of power, and attempt to mobilize the strength of both the public and private sectors.

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