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Japan wastes chance for energy rethink

The end of the Abe era is unlikely to lead the country to increase its unambitious target for renewables

Moves by Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) elite—in choosing a replacement for outgoing prime minister Shinzo Abe—to favour the voices of party lawmakers over rank and file members mean that a rare chance for a radical energy policy rethink is being lost.

Abe’s chosen successor will complete the country’s longest serving prime minister’s curtailed term of office, which runs until September 2021. In normal circumstances, party lawmakers and rank and file members would have equal numbers of votes to make that choice. But Abe’s decision to resign due to ill health is being used to justify a reweighting of influence. The election process that starts on 8 September gives 394 votes to LDP lawmakers and just 141 to the party’s prefecture chapters.

Such a heavy skew in favour of political insiders will favour Abe’s righthand man, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga. The 71-year-old is a policy coordinator rather than an ideas man; his elevation points to a safety-first succession, with the consensus around existing policies being protected.

Suga, who has been endorsed by Abe, “is the leading candidate to take the reins until at least September next year”, says Dan Shulman, principal at consultancy Shulman Advisory in Tokyo. A Suga premiership is “premised on marching orders from the LDP party hierarchy not to rock the boat between now and next September”.

“There is every reason to think Suga will continue Abe's policy in support of nuclear restarts,” Shulman says, pointing to Suga’s record of strong public support for nuclear. “I do not anticipate any significant near-term changes [in energy policy].” 

Safety First

Japan’s energy supply security has never fully recovered from the 1970s oil shock. Since then, all fuel sources have been explored, with nuclear power favoured until the Fukushima disaster of 2011. That prompted a shift back to imported fossil fuels at the expense of nuclear.

The country’s energy self-sufficiency ratio in 2017 was 9.6pc, compared with 16.9pc in South Korea, 68pc in the UK and 93pc in the US. Crude oil comes mainly from the Middle East and coal from Australia.

Abe favoured nuclear restarts as a way of cutting dependence on emissions-heavy coal. A safety-first succession means that, at least for now, hopefuls such as Shinjiro Koizumi, son of former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, will have to wait.

“[A Suga premiership is] premised on marching orders from the LDP party hierarchy not to rock the boat between now and next September” Shulman, Shulman Advisory

That means that the chance to re-evaluate Japan’s fragile energy mix is being lost, says Mark S Cogan, associate professor at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka. As environment minister, Koizumi has tried to wean Japan off coal but finds the way blocked by the more powerful ministry for economy, trade, and industry. He is also hostile to nuclear, and as prime minister would likely “doom any resumption of nuclear energy”, Cogan says.

The current target is for renewables to account for about 25pc of power generation by 2030. But, Cogan says, Japan is “so far behind the curve that it will take several years to reach today’s global average”. All the while, he adds, China is making heavy investments in renewable energy development. 

A wealthy country with a national genius for innovation which lacks energy security should be the obvious candidate to lead the transition to renewable energy. But somehow, it never seems to work out that way.

“They have the industrial, digital and economic power to do it,” argues Shuli Goodman, executive director at San Francisco-based non-profit LF Energy. A clear renewable energy strategy “would put the country in a position of leadership instead of vulnerability”.

But any such ambitious strategy, it seems, will have to wait at least until Suga’s interregnum is over.

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