09/16/2012 10:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Worlds Collide: Nukes vs. Climate

I'm notoriously bad at remembering jokes, but the reaction to last week's announcement that Japan would phase-out nuclear power by 2040 reminded me of this one:

Three guys are stranded on a deserted island. They've been there for years; their clothes are shredded and hanging from their emaciated bodies. One day a bottle washes ashore, and out comes a genie offering three wishes. The first guy says, "I wish I were back at home, feasting and drinking to my heart's content," and poof! He disappears. The second one says, "I wish I were back at home in bed with a beautiful woman," and poof! He disappears too. The third guy looks around and says, "Gee, it's lonely here without those other guys -- I wish they'd come back..."

What does this have to do with Japan's announcement? Unfortunately, the nuclear phase-out was unnecessarily coupled with a lowering of its climate ambition. Japan had a conditional plan to decrease CO2 emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, but is now looking at only a 5-9 percent reduction commitment. This led some commentators to play the role of the lonely guy whose frame of reference was so narrow he couldn't see the opportunity for what it was. Take Mark Lynas writing in The Guardian for example, who veritably shouted that: "without nuclear, the battle against global warming is as good as lost."


Creative Commons: Stanislav Dogparry via DeviantArt

Just as the choice between being lonely and dragging his friends back to the island was a false one, so is the choice between phasing out nuclear power and addressing climate change. The fact is we can do both. Over the weekend, I contacted several renewable energy experts who explained how Japan could fully make up for its nuclear phase-out by committing to energy efficiency and adopting a 100 percent renewable electricity target.

Greenpeace has produced a robust scenario in conjunction with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP), which shows "Japan can switch off all nuclear plants permanently by 2012 and still achieve both economic recovery and its CO2 reduction goals." WWF also has a 100 percent renewables scenario.

As Sven Teske, lead author of the Greenpeace report explained it to me:

Japan's decision is a revolutionary step, reflecting a complete change in mentality which will have knock-on effects for the renewable industry elsewhere. For example, with government support an 11-company consortium has been developing floating offshore wind technologies. This will open up opportunities not only for Japan, but for other countries including China and India.

Christine Lins of the REN21 Renewable Energy Policy Network was equally enthusiastic:

Energy efficiency and rapid deployment of renewable technology can provide all the power Japan needs. Clearly the announcement will be a boon for the renewable energy industry. See for example the announcement of Masayoshi Son, Softbank chief executive and founder of the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation, to build a 1 GW wind farm on Hokkaido.

According to Antony Froggatt, Independent Energy Consultant and Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House in London:

It's worth noting the role of energy saving and energy efficiency. In 2011, despite halving the output of nuclear and replacing it with coal, oil and gas Japan's total energy sector emissions were only 0.2 percent higher than in 2010. While emissions are likely to rise on the short term, this will stimulate rapid structural, investment and policy changes that will lead to rapid reductions on the mid-term. Given Japan has failed to drive down its CO2 emission reductions over the last decade, a significant reform of the energy sector was already overdue.

Teske added that the increase in fossil fuel use should be seen as a bridge -- Japan did not build new coal or gas plants to compensate for the loss of nuclear electricity.

They're in the process of trying to shift the entire electricity sector. Solar is going through the roof. Wind is going a little slower, but headed in a very positive direction. It doesn't look like they plan any major expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, but have simply expanded the capacity factor of existing power plants where necessary -- i.e. operating existing plants for more hours.

While there are many barriers to renewable energy development in Japan, (planning, ownership and structure of the utilities, creating an integrated national electricity grid, and overcoming the stranglehold of the powerful Keidanren, to name a few), all of the experts I spoke to highlighted political will as the single most important ingredient to overcoming them.

In a recent study examining the rapid transition underway in Germany and Japan, the authors concluded, "If there is adequate political consensus and will, significant and rapid change can occur to a country's energy system, with big gains to be had not only financially but also for environmental sustainability."

The take-home message for me is that winning the long hard fight against a dangerous nuclear future does not have to come at the expense of the climate. Japan's weaker climate targets are not set in stone -- we can and should push to accelerate the renewables revolution in Japan and elsewhere. In other words, to build the political will for a future in which our families are safe, healthy and prosperous.

And if you happen to come across a genie in a bottle anytime soon, be careful what you wish for.