Innovation and Market Reform Needed to Drive Japan’s Clean Energy Transition, IEA Policy Review Finds

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Photo-illustration: Unsplash (Priscilla Du Preez)

New report notes Japan’s success in making its energy system more resilient and sustainable, but says reaching carbon-neutrality by 2050 requires quick action now.

Japan will need to move quickly to make headway on the steep emissions reductions that are required to achieve its recently announced ambition of reaching carbon-neutrality by 2050, the International Energy Agency said today in its latest in-depth review of the country’s energy policies.

Nearly a decade after the 2011 earthquake and the resulting Fukushima nuclear accident, Japan has made real progress towards developing a more efficient, resilient and sustainable energy system. It has embarked on major reforms of its energy market and diversified its energy mix. Energy-related CO2 emissions have fallen continuously since their peak in 2013, thanks to the expansion of renewable energy, the restart of some nuclear power plants and energy efficiency gains. By 2018, Japan’s emissions had declined to a level last seen in 2009. Reliance on fossil fuels has also declined but remains high at nearly 90 percent of energy supply, making Japan among the most carbon-intensive economies of IEA members.

“Japan needs to accelerate the deployment of low-carbon technologies, remove regulatory barriers and increase competition in its energy markets if it is to reach carbon-neutrality by 2050. I welcome Japan’s new Green Growth Strategy that puts emphasis on these priorities. The IEA is committed to supporting the government in these vital efforts,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director, who launched the report today at an online event with Shin Hosaka, Commissioner of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy at Japan’s Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry.

The new IEA report on Japan’s policies analyses its energy challenges and recommends possible solutions to help it achieve a secure, affordable and sustainable energy future. It finds that Japan has made important strides in reforming its domestic electricity and natural gas markets. The increasing competition in these sectors is encouraging, but further reform is needed to achieve a true level playing field for all market participants. Additional regulatory reforms will be important to encourage investments in zero-emissions electricity and to improve power system flexibility. The IEA also calls for policy makers to ensure that the market regulator has sufficient powers and independence.

Photo-illustration: Unsplash (Zbynek Burival)

The report highlights that Japan has seen continuous growth in renewables in the power sector, but that grid constraints have hampered investment in new projects and posed challenges to security of supply. Creating a well-integrated national grid and taking steps to improve the operational efficiency of the electricity system will facilitate the integration of more renewables while enhancing system resilience. The recent cold snap in January led to very low reserve margins in Japan’s electricity systems. This event provided a reminder of the importance of regional interconnections and the need to have sufficient generation capacity.

The IEA welcomes the government’s recent announcement to phase out inefficient coal plants by 2030. This will further improve the already high efficiency of Japan’s thermal power fleet. Yet even efficient coal plants emit more CO2 than any other power generation source, and Japan ranks among the few IEA members that plan to add new coal capacity. Japan should tackle emissions from those new coal power plants by retrofitting, repurposing them as flexibility sources or able to use other fuels, or through other measures to help them avoid becoming stranded assets.

The IEA report highlights that Japan’s strong innovation and technology base can play a vital role in developing the technologies needed to achieve its 2050 energy and climate ambitions. “I applaud Japan for its leadership in advancing low-carbon hydrogen and carbon-recycling technologies, which will be crucial for decarbonising sectors where emissions are hardest to reduce, such as long-distance transport and heavy industry,” Dr Birol said.

Reducing the costs of these technologies will be essential to promote their deployment at scale. Stronger reliance on market-based instruments is an additional option for Japan to reduce emissions cost-effectively, foster innovation for low-carbon technologies and further increase Japan’s already high level of energy efficiency.

Source: IEA