In 2014, when Tokyo won the 2020 Summer Olympic Games award, it seemed like an impossible feat for Japan. Only three years earlier, on 11 March 2011, the central area of Tohoku had been hit by a triple catastrophe: first the terrible earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded; then the tsunami, with waves over eleven meters high; finally, the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. The Olympic gamble, however, had been sought and won for a specific reason: the Olympics served the Japanese government above all to have a roadmap, a reconstruction program in mandatory stages that should have led the country to be reborn, from the point of view of development. economic and energetic, in time for the Olympic Games. Tokyo would have had six years to emerge from the emergency and take advantage of the crisis period to relaunch itself in a new green perspective.
Goals and reality
That’s not exactly how it went. Japan’s return to the world scene, the reconstruction of the areas most affected by the earthquake and tsunami, but above all the rethinking of Japanese energy policy after the nuclear disaster did not bear the hoped.for results. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, herald of this transformation, wanted to make Japan a leader in the global battle for reducing emissions and against climate change. Yet the Japanese history of recent years shows that politics alone is not enough. The transformation must be accompanied by the involvement of the company, by effective communication, by forecasting unexpected events. In the year 2020, renewable energy accounted for only 18 percent of Japan’s national electricity production. The country of the Rising Sun is still the fifth in the world for carbon emissions, and according to what Shinzo Abe announced in 2018, the goal is to make 24 percent of the total energy produced renewable by 2030. Two years later, Abe’s successor, his right.hand man Yoshihide Suga, has raised the stakes even further. On 26 October 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, Suga announced to the Diet, the national parliament, that Japan will reach zero emissions by 2050. An ambitious plan, to say the least, but which mainly concerns the political competition between the countries of ‘East Asia. In fact, in the same period of 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping had declared that China – the country that produces the most emissions in the world – will reach carbon.neutrality by 2060. At the same time, South Korea’s Democrat Moon Jae.in also had announced its “Green New Deal”: 54.3 billion euros to invest in the green transition, and neutrality by 2050. Tokyo could not be outdone.
The faces of transformation
Politically, the Japanese executive has at least two faces to represent this transformation. On the one hand, there is Taro Kono, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, then of Defense, and for almost a year Minister for Administrative Reforms. He is one of the best known politicians abroad: an excellent diplomat and communicator, he was entrusted with the task of revolutionizing the mammoth brake on the Japanese green revival, the bureaucracy. As soon as he arrived at the dicastery, Kono promised to eliminate, or at least reduce, an entirely Japanese tradition, that of the hanko. Japanese stamps, which are used in place of the signature on paper in official documents, are a small example of how the digital revolution in Japan stopped in the 1980s – another example: for so many public procedures there is still a need for sending faxes. The use of paper in the offices of the Japanese public administration has never been replaced by digital, and it is above all a symbolic and image problem: “The government itself must work to reduce emissions and help us reach the 2050 goal. “Taro Kono said during a press conference in December:” That is why we are asking ministries to increase the use of renewable energy to 30 percent of their total needs. “
The other face of Japan’s green transition is even more popular. He is Shinjiro Koizumi, born in 1981, son of the historic Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi. Beyond the political capital that he brings with him thanks to his father, Koizumi junior represents the new and young face of Japanese politics also and above all on environmental issues. He often shows almost personal attention to certain issues, for example when he criticizes his own government, accusing it of taking too few concrete steps towards the announced goal of 2050. At the latest G7 of environment ministers, Koizumi said that Japan will no longer export coal.fired power plant technology, and that the exceptions that were authorized in recent years will no longer be allowed.
Low Impact Olympics
Above all from a communicative point of view, the ecological roadmap imagined first by Abe and then by Suga should have coincided with the Japanese Olympic Games. They were scheduled for the summer of 2020, and then the Sars.Cov.2 pandemic forced the International Olympic Committee to postpone them to the summer of 2021. Central government projects should have been the first zero.impact Olympics, but the postponement of one year, with the relative expenses for the maintenance of the plants, together with the stringent anti.contagion security measures have greatly reduced the possibility of being truly zero impact. The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee had published a “sustainability report” already in 2019, which was then updated according to the latest provisions on safety against infections – for example the use of plastic and disposable items, which we wanted to avoid altogether, it has been reintroduced. However, the “Towards Zero Carbon” document includes some interesting news regarding the ability of mega.events to have a reduced impact on cities and to be transparent regarding their sustainability. First of all, renewable energies: according to what the Committee has made official, the electricity used for food at the Games is one hundred percent renewable. The energy sources are tracked and verifiable, and “will include electricity from areas affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami”. The impact on emissions, according to the calculations of the Japanese experts, will be lower than in previous editions of the Summer Olympic Games. The forecast is that the event will produce 2.73 million tons of emissions, “a reduction of 280 thousand tons of CO2”. Thanks to a partnership with Toyota, the Japanese automotive giant, hydrogen will be the official fuel of the Olympics. Not only will the athletes and delegations travel on at least five hundred electric vehicles made available by the organization, but even the Olympic torches will be powered by hydrogen. And then of course there are the more symbolic and image aspects: the podiums where the medals will be awarded will all be made from recycled material, as part of the promotion of the “3R”, “reduce, reuse, recycle”; much of the equipment will be rented or leased, without first.hand purchases.
But beyond the Olympic showcase, which will be fundamental to promote the transformation of Japan, in the land of the Rising Sun the theme of climate change is also increasingly felt in the daily life of the Japanese: the intensification of the typhoon season, drought. , the deadly heatwaves for the older population in recent years have made the ecological issue a priority especially among citizens. But for a country dependent on imports, with few natural resources, the energy problem remains crucial, which has worsened enormously after 2011.
The nuclear debate
On March 11 of that year, the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant paved the way for a cross.cutting and determined anti.nuclear movement. The management of the accident was worsened by the attempt of the company responsible for the plant, Tepco, to minimize the damage, but also by the central government, which in the first days after the disaster had to cope with thousands of deaths from the tsunami and as many displaced. Public opinion criticized both, and within a few weeks public confidence in nuclear power plummeted to an all.time low. Slowly, under the guise of maintenance, the Tokyo government decided to shut down 46 of its 50 nuclear reactors to rethink safety levels. But in 2011, atomic energy accounted for a third of the country’s entire energy needs. For the first time since the war rationing returned, megacities like Tokyo turned off their lights, even the typical drink dispensers in the streets. It was then that one of the most important public debates in modern Japan began: the atomic bomb had been the symbol of the economic revival of the 1980s, how could the country return to growth after twenty years of stagnation without sufficient energy?
The Tokyo government led by the Liberal Democratic Party, in its energy strategy, speaks of a production mix. To reach the goal of 2050 with zero emissions, explains the Japanese executive, it is necessary to reactivate the reactors that comply with the new safety rules: nuclear energy is clean energy, and if today only 6 percent of the needs come from nuclear power plants, the goal is to return to 20 percent of the energy produced by nuclear power. In this way, the rest of the electricity demand could be divided as follows: the most important slice, 50.60 percent, can be supported by renewable sources; 10.20 percent from thermoelectric plants and the rest (especially as regards the industrial sector) can be produced from clean hydrogen.
Not everyone agrees with this plan. Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi is part of the government’s anti.nuclear movement, and has repeatedly renewed the call to look at the “California model” of solar panels on homes and buildings to increase renewable energy production. Opposing the Tokyo government’s “Green Growth Strategy” is the automotive sector, which accounts for 2.5 percent of Japan’s GDP. According to Yoshihide Suga’s green roadmap, Japan will cease selling gasoline vehicles by 2035, but carmakers are demanding guarantees that a zero.emission vehicle can actually be produced and that they are powered by clean energy. Other criticisms of the plan’s feasibility came from the steel sector and construction companies.
Like many other industrial powers, especially in Asia, Japan will have to deal with the promises made at the Paris conference on climate and with the ecological goals it has set itself. But at the same time it will have to be able to not throttle key sectors of its economy.
*Giulia Pompili has been a journalist for Il Foglio since 2010, where she mainly follows the news from East Asia. Since 2017 she is the author of the Katane newsletter, the first in Italian on Asian events. she is the author of the book “Under the same sky” (Mondadori)– Article published in the July 2021 issue of WE World Energy–
WE World Energy is the international magazine on the world of energy published by Eni – directed by Mario Sechi – which with its wealth of experience and science has earned a position of great importance in the international panorama of the sector media.