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Japan's goal of 46% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030 a dream or feasible?

Wind turbines at Wind Farm Tsugaru, Japan's largest wind power generation facility operating on farmland, are seen in Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture, on May 4, 2021. (Mainichi/Kota Yoshida)

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced on April 22 a new greenhouse gas emission reduction target for fiscal 2030 of a 46% decline from fiscal 2013 levels. While some have praised the drastic increase from the previous target of a 26% reduction as "ambitious," others strongly believe it to be "unrealistic." There are 10 years left, including the current fiscal year, to achieve this goal. But is it possible?

    The government has not yet given a concrete explanation of the basis for the 46% target. The total amount of emissions in fiscal 2019 was 1.212 billion metric tons, and the new target aims to reduce this to 760 million tons by fiscal 2030. The reduction of 452 million tons cannot be achieved even if the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from thermal power plants, which account for nearly 80% of the electricity generated in Japan, is reduced to zero.

    "A cut of 30% or so would be achievable, but a 46% reduction would be difficult," declared Takayuki Mase, a chief researcher at the Socio-economic Research Center at the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry (CRIEPI).

    According to the CRIEPI's calculations, the demand for electricity in fiscal 2030 will be 982.1 billion kilowatt-hours. Even if the ratio of nuclear power to total domestic power generation is increased to about 20%, and renewable energy such as solar power and wind power are boosted to nearly 30%, it is said that a 40% reduction will be the most that can be achieved in fiscal 2030, despite the expected decline in crude steel production.

    Moreover, this estimate is based on the premise that GDP will grow at an annualized rate of 0.9% and that thorough energy conservation equivalent to 60 million kiloliters of crude oil per year (1.2 times the government's current target) will be possible by fiscal 2030. Mase said, "There is no guarantee that this assumption will be realized. Even a 40% reduction would be a very high target."

    In order to cover the shortfall of 6%, for example, solar power generation will have to be increased to 219 gigawatts, or about three times the amount generated at existing facilities, by 2030. In this case, over the next 10 years, the pace of expansion will have to continue at 1.5 times the rate of fiscal 2014, which was the largest scale of installations ever.

    Mase said, "Expansion on such a large scale is unrealistic. There is a limit to how much we can reduce CO2 emissions in the power sector alone. It is also important to promote equipment that reduces CO2 emissions, such as the electrification of gas water heaters for household use."

    The Minamisoma Mano-Migita-Ebi Solar Power Plant in the city of Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, is seen on Jan. 30, 2020. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

    On the other hand, some people actually estimate that a greenhouse gas reduction of around 46% is possible.

    In August 2020, the Renewable Energy Institute, a private think tank, released a report titled "Proposal for 2030 Energy Mix in Japan," which examined a scenario for achieving a 47% reduction in CO2 emissions by fiscal 2030 compared to fiscal 2013. In terms of greenhouse gases as a whole, this would be a 45% to 46% reduction, which is almost the same as the government's new target.

    Mika Obayashi, director general of the institute, explained, "To achieve the 46% target, a major shift in the energy structure will have to take place, and the only way to achieve this is to eliminate coal-fired power plants, which emit a lot of CO2."

    The report envisions the energy situation in Japan in fiscal 2030 as follows: Electricity demand is expected to decrease by 10% compared to fiscal 2018 due to energy conservation, a declining population and a decrease in industrial activities, and is expected to be 850 billion kilowatt-hours, 13.5% less than the estimate by the CRIEPI.

    In the meantime, solar power, which accounted for 7% of total output as of fiscal 2018, will increase to 19.6%; wind power, which accounted for 1%, will be boosted to 9.3%; and renewable energy as a whole, including hydroelectric power, geothermal power and biomass, will cover more than 45%. The 145 gigawatts of solar power expected to be available in 2030 is about twice the output at existing facilities, and the think tank believes that "it would be realistic to increase the amount in another 10 years."

    On the other hand, coal-fired power plants, which emit about twice as much CO2 as their natural gas-fired counterparts, will be completely abolished, including both new and existing plants. Based on the lessons learned from the disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Holdings Inc.'s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the plan assumes that not a single nuclear reactor will be in operation.

    The report concludes, "Moving toward 2030, we need to create a country free of dependence on coal and nuclear power. This is the energy policy choice we are advising the government to make."

    Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, left, announces a new greenhouse gas emission reduction target at a meeting of the Global Warming Prevention Headquarters at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on April 22, 2021. Minister of the Environment Shinjiro Koizumi is seen on the right. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

    Obayashi cited "carbon pricing," which puts a price on CO2 emissions, as a key policy for the realization of the scenario. Carbon pricing includes a "carbon tax" on fossil fuels such as oil and coal based on the amount of CO2 emitted, and "emissions trading," which allows companies to trade their emissions quotas.

    According to a report by the research firm Bloomberg NEF, renewable energy has already become the cheapest power source not only in Europe and the United States, but also in China and India. In Japan, however, the cost of generating electricity from renewable energy is high due to expensive construction fees and limited availability of suitable sites. On the other hand, coal-fired power, which can be imported at a relatively low cost, is the cheapest.

    If Japan introduces a carbon tax or something similar, it is possible that energy costs will rise temporarily during the period when the ratio of coal-fired power is high. However, Obayashi said, "Tax revenue from the carbon tax and other sources can be used as government revenue for decarbonization policies. In Europe, efforts are being made to reduce the corporate burden by combining the introduction of carbon taxes with corporate tax cuts, and this should be used as a reference."

    The 46% reduction is also the minimum level needed to reach the goal of "virtually zero" greenhouse gas emissions in Japan by 2050, which Prime Minister Suga announced in October 2020. Assuming that a 46% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is achieved over the 18-year period from fiscal 2013 to 2030, if the same pace of reduction is maintained from fiscal 2031 onwards, only a 95% reduction will be achieved by fiscal 2050. Even this is inadequate as an interim target to achieve "virtually zero" emissions.

    The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is currently reviewing the plan for the energy mix for fiscal 2030. It will be worth watching to see if a feasible path toward the 46% reduction target can be paved.

    (Japanese original by Shuichi Abe, Science & Environment News Department)

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