SAPPORO – When environment and energy ministers from the Group of Seven nations gather in Sapporo on Saturday, Japan will push Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s “Green Transformation” policy as its way of meeting last year’s agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector by 2035.
But that policy, which calls for the expanded use of as yet unproven technologies, could prove to be very controversial once the meetings get underway. Japan is facing pressure from other G7 leaders to phase out coal power by 2030, while renewable energy proponents are seeking to push Japan to ramp up renewables.
At the G7 climate, energy, and environment ministers meeting in Berlin last year, members committed to a goal of achieving a predominantly decarbonized electricity sector by 2035.
At the same time, the ministers also agreed to emphasize the role of low-carbon and renewables-based hydrogen and ammonia in achieving net-zero emissions, as well as carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies.
The Green Transformation policy includes a push for all of these technologies, which the government says are necessary to meet Japan’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. They also say the technology will aid the world in achieving the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which is to keep the global temperature rise this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the increase even further to 1.5 C.
Working level negotiations between the G7 members have been going on this week in Sapporo to try to reach agreement on a number of issues, including decarbonization efforts. At a news conference Tuesday, Environment Minister Akihiro Nishimura avoided commenting on the status of negotiations, saying there were still a number of delicate issues being discussed.
As the start of the ministers meeting has drawn closer, Japan has found itself under increased pressure to increase renewable energy use. On Wednesday, the Japan Climate Initiative called for supplying the vast majority of electricity from renewables by 2035 by implementing regulatory reforms, speeding up the development of offshore wind farms and making solar power generation mandatory for new buildings.
The JCI statement was backed by 225 corporations, 16 local governments — including Sapporo, Kyoto, Osaka and Yokohama — and a number of nongovernmental organizations.
The Tokyo-based Renewable Energy Institute has estimated that Hokkaido alone has almost half of Japan’s on and offshore wind power potential.
Of particular concern for renewable energy advocates has been the government’s position on the word “predominantly” — used in last year’s statement about decarbonization in the power sector — and what it means for Japan’s efforts to reach the 2035 goal.
“The Japanese government has tried to avoid a specific definition of the word. Predominantly means 70%, 80% or 90% decarbonized. But the Japanese government has said predominantly could also be interpreted as 51% or more,” said JCI co-representative Takejiro Sueyoshi at a news conference in Sapporo.
Under Japan’s current energy plan, 36% to 38% of its electricity is to come from renewable energy by 2030. The JCI statement noted that four other G7 countries — Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy — are already using more renewable energy than Japan’s 2030 target.
The U.S. has set a goal of having 80% of its electricity come from decarbonized energy sources — including nuclear power — by 2030, and 100% of electricity from clean energy sources by 2035. For Japan, reaching the more commonly accepted definition of “predominantly” by 2035 would require a massive ramp-up of renewable energy.
While the G7 has acknowledged the role of hydrogen, ammonia and carbon capture in promoting decarbonization, all three remain controversial. A September report by BloombergNEF warned that ammonia coal co-firing is likely to be costly and may not contribute to decarbonization.
An analysis of Japan’s electricity sector released this month by the U.K.-based Ember environmental think tank said that Japan was far behind on its renewable energy ambition, with an estimated 71% of its electricity coming from fossil fuel sources in 2022. This could continue to be a major point of contention in Sapporo and leading up to the G7 leaders summit in Hiroshima in May.
“As Japan assumes the G7 presidency, it faces quite a challenge on its hands with over two-thirds of its electricity still coming from fossil fuels,” said Malgorzata Wiatros-Motyka, senior electricity analyst at Ember. “This is the highest of any G7 country, at a time when the G7 has made a commitment to a fully or predominantly decarbonised power sector by 2035. The G7 will want to push (Japan) harder on this.”