Japan's impending leadership change, which would typically not change the course of its energy policy, is in the spotlight due to a potential major shift in focus after the ruling Liberal Democratic Party votes to elect a new president on Sept. 29.
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Four candidates -- Taro Kono, Fumio Kishida, Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda -- are running in the LDP's presidential election after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's abrupt announcement Sept. 3 that he would not re-seek the ruling party's leadership.
Suga's decision not to contest paves the way for a new premier in October when the new cabinet will approve the country's new Strategic Energy Plan, as well as submit its Nationally Determined Contribution or NDC ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow over Oct. 31-Nov. 12.
The draft Strategic Energy Plan, Japan's principle energy policy, calls for non-fossil fuel power supply sources to account for roughly 60% by fiscal year 2030-31 (April-March). The draft NDC aims for a 46% cut in the country's greenhouse gas emissions by the same fiscal year. Both are currently undergoing a month-long public comment process until Oct. 4.
Regardless of who becomes the next LDP president and premier, there is no turnaround in Japan's push for renewables as outlined in the draft Strategic Energy Plan, with its climate policies to be among the key priorities in its 2050 carbon neutrality pathway.
"Climate policy should be equally or more important for the new Japanese leadership, relative to the Suga government," said Jane Nakano, senior fellow in the energy security and climate change program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The Japanese public will be better served by a national leader who has a strong grasp of the magnitude of the climate challenge and an ability to proactively seize on some potential opportunities," Nakano said.
"The Biden administration would welcome a new leader who shares its sense of urgency in addressing climate crisis, and work with the United States as partners."
Japan's nuclear power policy and renewables are among the key areas that could be approached and emphasized differently by each candidate.
So far Kono, the minister in charge of administrative reform; Kishida, former chairperson of the LDP policy research council and foreign minister; Takaichi, former minister for internal affairs and communications and Noda, the LDP executive acting secretary-general, all agree on the need to utilize operable nuclear power plants to ensure Japan's stable energy supply.
However, there is a distinctive difference between Kono and Takaichi's public stances on nuclear power policy, with the former advocating letting nuclear power plants phase out without newbuilds and the latter accelerating developments of small modular reactors and nuclear fusion reactors.
"Should Taro Kono become prime minister, that would likely result in a big push for renewable power in Japan," said Henning Gloystein, director of global energy and natural resources at Eurasia Group.
"And although he has recently moderated his well-publicized critical views on nuclear power, the atomic energy industry would almost certainly stall under a government led by him," Gloystein added.
Japan, which has maintained a target share of 20%-22% nuclear power in the electricity mix by FY 2030-31 in the draft Strategic Energy Plan, has restarted only 10 nuclear reactors under new regulatory standards introduced in 2013 -- a sign that the country has made little progress in restoring public trust after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis.
"Currently, the life of Japan's nuclear power plant is 40 years and 60 years even after operational extension," Kono said during a Sept. 18 public debate among the LDP leadership candidates. "Nuclear power will gradually decrease as reactors reaching the life [of service limit] get decommissioned."
Japan's current "biggest issue" with nuclear power is that it has not been able to decide how to process nuclear waste, Kono said at the time, calling for discussion on realistic processing methods.
Nobuo Tanaka, former executive director of the International Energy Agency, agrees on the need for initiating serious discussions under a new cabinet to consider ways of processing spent nuclear fuel and fuel debris from the Fukushima crisis.
"Japan's emerging significant issue is the spent nuclear fuel and the processing of fuel debris at Fukushima," said Tanaka, who is currently chairman of the Innovation for Cool Earth Forum's steering committee. "Japan will need to reduce nuclear waste from processing the spent fuel and reduce radioactive material from processing the debris."
Serious discussions will be needed over the development of small modular fast reactors, which could be used for processing nuclear waste, as well as being used for industries and producing hydrogen for decarbonization, Tanaka said.
Kono's public remarks on phasing out coal, oil and natural gas, while maximizing and prioritizing renewables' introduction for 2050 carbon neutrality, also suggest a possible shift in Japan's energy policy focus.
"In order to achieve the 2050 carbon neutrality and curb climate change, we need to stop coal and oil first and eventually make a break away from natural gas," Kono said during a Sept. 10 press conference.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry's 2050 power source idea released last December included nuclear as a carbon-free source, together with fossil fuels, with carbon capture, utilization and storage, and carbon recycling, accounting for 30-40%, renewables for 50-60% and hydrogen and ammonia about 10%.
"If Japan is serious about achieving its net zero emissions target by 2050, which we assume any new government will be, then the cuts to the country's thermal coal usage will have to start soon," Gloystein said. "Some of that will be replaceable via LNG, but even natural gas usage will need to gradually be dialed back to get near net zero."