When Mother Nature Stalls a Country’s Climate Fight

Officials and journalists stand near a tank where radioactive water spilled at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The plant's meltdown following a 2011 tsunami has caused a dramatic shift in Japan's power supply and climate goals.
National Journal
Alex Brown
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Alex Brown
Nov. 15, 2013, 8:39 a.m.

Ja­pan is tak­ing heat this week for dra­mat­ic­ally lower­ing its emis­sions goals, but it’s not as if the coun­try sud­denly stopped caring about cli­mate change. The is­land na­tion’s spik­ing de­pend­ence on fossil fuels can be traced to the 2011 tsunami that caused a melt­down at the Fukushi­ma Daii­chi nuc­le­ar plant — and the sub­sequent clos­ures of Ja­pan’s 50 nuc­le­ar re­act­ors over safety con­cerns.

Nuc­le­ar made up more than a quarter of Ja­pan’s power sup­ply be­fore the dis­aster, and re­pla­cing it with coal and nat­ur­al gas has pushed the coun­try’s emis­sions pace back up. The in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity isn’t happy about Ja­pan’s re­vised green­house-gas tar­gets, but the new goals are a func­tion of a be­lea­guered power sys­tem that is still ad­just­ing to post-tsunami real­ity. Here’s how we got here:

2007-2010  —  Ja­pan’s emis­sions fall nearly 7 per­cent (in­clud­ing a 16-year low in 2009), though some of that is at­trib­ut­able to the glob­al re­ces­sion.

Sept. 16, 2009  —  Ja­pan’s par­lia­ment con­firms Yukio Hat­oy­ama as the coun­try’s new prime min­is­ter; Hat­oy­ama af­firms cam­paign pledges to lower Ja­pan’s emis­sions 25 per­cent by 2020 (from 1990 levels). By com­par­is­on, the U.S. has pledged to cut emis­sions 17 per­cent over that same time­frame.

March 11, 2011  —  An earth­quake leads to a tsunami that strikes and cripples the Fukushi­ma Daii­chi plant, caus­ing melt­downs in the second-largest nuc­le­ar dis­aster in his­tory. Many of Ja­pan’s nuc­le­ar plants close over safety con­cerns.

2011-2012  —  Emis­sions rise 6 per­cent, near­ing 2007 levels. Im­ports of li­que­fied nat­ur­al gas, an­oth­er way to fuel power plants, climb 12 per­cent in 2011 and 11 per­cent in 2012. Ja­pan is the world’s largest im­port­er of nat­ur­al gas.

Sept. 15, 2013  —  The coun­try shuts down its last op­er­at­ing nuc­le­ar-power re­act­or for main­ten­ance, leav­ing it com­pletely re­li­ant on oth­er forms of en­ergy.

Nov. 15, 2013  —  Ja­pan an­nounces it is lower­ing its emis­sions goal. The long-touted 25-per­cent re­duc­tion level now stands at 3.8 per­cent. Put in per­spect­ive — In 2009, emis­sions were less than 2 per­cent above 1990 levels and had dropped 11 per­cent in just two years. Now, that pro­gress has been erased and the coun­try’s am­bi­tion is es­sen­tially a re­turn to 2009 levels — with a slight lower­ing thrown in — by the end of the dec­ade.

Ja­pan’s struggles high­light some of the on­go­ing de­bates cli­mate act­iv­ists are hav­ing. Earli­er this month, a group of sci­ent­ists called for an ex­pan­sion of nuc­le­ar power to help lower emis­sions. Oth­er en­vir­on­ment­al­ists countered that re­new­ables are the only solu­tion, cit­ing safety is­sues with nuc­le­ar.

Mean­while, sci­ent­ists are send­ing in­creas­ing sig­nals that even our most am­bi­tious cli­mate goals might not be good enough. One U.N. study op­er­ated un­der the as­sump­tion that every coun­try meets its self-as­signed emis­sions goals — and that was be­fore Ja­pan re­duced its tar­gets. It found that emis­sions will still be 18 to 27 per­cent above the levels needed to stave off cli­mate change’s worst ef­fects without sig­ni­fic­ant cost bur­dens.

It’s not all bad news. Sol­ar power has boomed in the wake of Fukushi­ma, put­ting Ja­pan on pace to be­come the world’s lead­ing sol­ar mar­ket. Off­shore wind tur­bines just went on­line off the coast of Fukushi­ma, sig­nal­ing a re­in­vest­ment in en­ergy in that re­gion. And nat­ur­al-gas im­ports have fallen slightly in 2013, though some of that may be due to some coal plants com­ing back on­line. But for a coun­try that a few years ago was a world lead­er with its am­bi­tious tar­gets and emis­sions re­duc­tions, feel­ing the world com­munity’s ire for in­cre­ment­al goals can’t feel much like pro­gress.

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