THE JAPAN TIMES

COMMENTARY 

How energy neglect holds Japan back

BY WILLIAM PESEK
  • JAN 19, 2018

As political bookends go, Junichiro Koizumi and Taro Kono make quite a pair. Will history show that both men stood on either side of Shinzo Abe losing his prime ministership?

Former Prime Minister Koizumi, 76, was Abe’s mentor way back when, championing Abe to replace him in 2006. Kono, 55, is Abe’s current foreign minister — and a potential rival. What joins them today is a stance against Abe’s slavish devotion to nuclear power. In the space of one week, Koizumi and Kono both called out Abe for antiquated energy ideas wedded more to 1985 thinking than where Japan could find itself in 2025.

Koizumi leads a group of anti-nuclear activists demanding an “immediate halt” to Tokyo’s addiction to reactors to prevent another Fukushima-style disaster. On Jan. 10, they warned of the “costly” nature of atomic power, which the so-called nuclear village argues is cheap, clean and safe. Yet Koizumi’s pitch is also about economics: Winning Japan a big piece of the renewable energy boom could, unlike Abenomics, rekindle Japan’s innovative mojo.

Count Kono as a fellow believer. In a speech Sunday in Abu Dhabi, he slapped Abe’s nuclear tunnel vision, calling his renewable-energy targets “lamentable.” As Kono points out, Japan plans to boost the share of power from renewables to between 22 percent and 24 percent by 2030. It means that, 12 years from now, Japan will hopefully reach today’s global average, putting it even further behind. China, meantime, is plowing several hundred billion dollars into leading Asia’s energy revolution.

“For too long,” Kono said, “Japan has turned a blind eye to global trends, such as the dramatic decrease in the price of renewables and the inevitable shift to decarbonization in the face of climate change.” Then he made a not-so-veiled challenge to Abe’s prime ministership, expressing “Japan’s determination to undertake renewable energy diplomacy with new ways of thinking, to grasp the global dynamics properly and to implement coherent, long-term solutions that are aligned with global trends.”

This could only happen in a post-Abe context. Abe has plenty of time to travel the globe to hawk — and back with taxpayer funds — nuclear technology for Hitachi and other companies abroad. The Liberal Democratic stalwart has no time to meet with the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Abe rebuffed its leader’s request for a meeting.

Granted, Abe has good company in the renewables-denial department. His buddy U.S. President Donald Trump, for example, is busily making coal great again, dismissing climate change risks, building up America’s nuclear arsenal and trolling North Korea to prove its nuclear button actually works. The good news is that Silicon Valley is looking to 2020 and beyond, when the U.S. presumably elects a leader looking more toward 2025 than 1985. Energy innovators, including Tesla’s Elon Musk, are ignoring Trump’s devolutionary policies.

Japan enjoys some of this dynamic. Thankfully, Panasonic, Toyota and Fanuc are innovating around the LDP’s failure to think outside the energy box. Bureaucracy too often gets in the way, though. Look no further than Masayoshi Son’s frustrated efforts to revolutionize Japan’s solar industry. Tokyo has moved glacially on private sector access to the power grid network. Why generate energy that can’t be readily stored? As a result, SoftBank’s nearly $100 billion Vision Fund may do more to energize renewables abroad — in, say, Saudi Arabia — than at home.

When Abe set his renewables target in 2015, he touted it as an “ambitious goal.” Kono counters that the LDP has for too long championed “short-term and ad hoc solutions.” That short-termism is really the result of a long-term obsession with nuclear power, something about which Koizumi is warning with increasing volume and frequency.

Just like America’s military industrial complex, Japan’s nuclear village warps incentives and innovation. The financial and political power wielded by Tokyo’s nexus of pro-reactor lawmakers, CEOs, academics and investors leaves old-school, establishment politicians — of which Abe is Exhibit A — loath to change course.

The anti-reactor movement has broad public support, and may increasingly dent the LDP’s standing. Japan’s growing carbon footprint — thanks in part to weak renewables policies — may prove embarrassing for voters who fancy themselves good global citizens.

Abenomics, meantime, is a ploy not just to end deflation but to make Japan a much bigger blip in the global radar screen. Tokyo’s game plan, though, underplays the biggest industry of tomorrow: inventing ways for China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines and others to grow rapidly without choking.

The most casual perusal of news makes clear that renewables promise to change everything. To understand the potential, Abe could give one-time mentor Koizumi a call. Or he could pull potential rival Kono aside — or Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike — to get the lowdown. If Abe isn’t careful, his nuclear blinders could close the book on his prime ministership sooner than he hopes and mar his reformist legacy.

Based in Tokyo, journalist William Pesek is the author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.”

 

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