For the next few months, along with colleagues from Kyoto University and Kyushu University, I’m going to be leading a British Academy-funded project on just transitions in Japan. The start of the project is timely, as it coincides with the conclusion of COP26 and the Glasgow Climate Pact.
One of the big talking points at the conclusion of COP26 was the language around a ‘phase-down’ of unabated coal power. Before, during and after COP26, Japan has been facing severe criticism from NGOs for its continued reliance on coal power in particular, and for the lack of a clear phase-out date for coal and concrete plans to replace it in the national energy system. The Japanese Government’s Ministry of Environment was also criticised for failing to mention the word ‘coal’ in their report of the events at COP26 – and, indeed, in the press conference after Prime Minister Kishida’s visit to the Leader’s Summit.
As the Glasgow Climate Pact makes explicit reference to a just transition and to a phase-down of coal, to kick our project off I thought I’d jot down some of my takeaways on what COP26 means for a just transition in Japan. I was fortunate enough to be in the negotiations in Glasgow as an Observer for the Open University, so sat in on some of the negotiations as well as a number of side events. In no particular order, here are a few of the things I took out of it:
1. Hydrogen and carbon dioxide capture and storage are promoted as having a significant role in Japan meeting its climate obligations. This may have implications in terms of (a) the regions and localities that are expected to host storage and production facilities, versus where energy is required; and (b) the cost and availability of energy, especially given the high price of hydrogen to consumers and lack of transportation infrastructure;
2. Offshore wind is also gaining traction as a low-carbon power source, albeit at a slow pace. From a just transition perspective, however, there remains a need to ensure strong local content – as seen with the Goto Project in Nagasaki Prefecture – and to allay fishers’ concerns about the effects of offshore wind on livelihoods;
3. Japan’s support for the text around coal phase-down in the Glasgow Climate Pact will have implications for the domestic coal power sector. Whilst more clarity is required (which we hope to develop during the project) as to what this means for current and planned thermal power in Japan, this may have negative effects on the workforces and regions reliant on coal-fired power stations for employment. The Japanese environmental NGO Kiko Network, for example, reports that approximately 10,000 people are employed in the electricity sector in Japan;
4. Notably, post-COP26 there has been increasing pressure on the Japanese Government from domestic media and NGOs for greater clarity on what coal phase-down means with regard to alternative power sources and exit dates. It will be interesting to see if this is sustained in the coming months – especially as scepticism has been raised over the viability of using co-firing with ammonia and hydrogen, and/or carbon capture and storage, as a means of keeping coal running in unabated form;
5. Japan’s national-level climate strategies and rhetoric places significant emphasis on technology and innovation. What is required now, however, is to upscale and roll out these site-specific demonstration projects (e.g. CCS in Tomakomai; Hydrogen in Fukushima) into larger-scale programmes capable of delivering societal benefit and emissions reductions over the short- to medium term;
6. Something I am seeing a lot of from commentators on social media (and some politicians) is the setting up of false choice dichotomies, e.g. between coal power and nuclear power, or coal power and vulnerable people being at the risk of harm in summer due to electricity shortages. It is of course true that Japan’s topography, geographical situation and lack of natural resources raises unique challenges for an energy transition. However, it’s important that this is not reduced to an either/or dichotomy, and that we remember that transitioning away from fossil fuels – whilst there is a great deal of urgency – doesn’t mean turning everything off tomorrow. It’s worth interrogating the motives of those who seek to set up these binaries.