Japan should invest more in renewables and less in 'clean coal': Climate think-tank

The think-tank's report urged Japan to boost investment in clean renewable technology such as solar and offshore wind. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Japan's focus on so-called "advanced clean coal technologies" as a means to reach its climate targets is misplaced due to their high cost and low sustainability, according to a climate research report published on Monday (Feb 14).

The report, titled Coal-de-sac, by London-based climate analytic think-tank TransitionZero, warned that in the worst-case scenario, extensive use of such technology may jeopardise Japan's climate goals.

In 2020, Japan pledged to cut emissions by at least 46 per cent from 2013 levels by 2030 and to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The country has long had a bad reputation for its addiction to coal, though Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told the COP26 climate conference last year that Japan will shift towards less polluting "clean coal" technologies.

But the report urged Japan to instead boost investment in clean renewable technology such as solar and offshore wind. This, it said, is a long-term solution, avoiding the short-term temptation to retrofit existing coal plants with pricey technologies with potentially low returns.

As it is, the report noted that the carbon intensity of Japan's clean coal technologies is five times higher than what is required for the country to be on track to reach its 2050 target. The cost of these technologies, meanwhile, is up to three times that of solar power.

"It seems like Japan is pursuing technologies that are the easiest way for it to keep its coal plants operational for longer," TransitionZero co-founder Matt Gray, who co-wrote the report, told a media briefing.

"If Japan moves ahead with this, they could potentially be locking themselves into high-cost electricity that will not only compromise their economic competitiveness, but also probably do very little to meet their long-term ambitions to be net-zero by 2050."

The report, which included input by Japanese experts such as Mr Shin Furuno, a senior manager for environmental, social and corporate governance at the Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank, compared the cost and environmental impact of renewable energies to that of Japan's three preferred advanced coal technologies.

One method is ammonia co-firing, by which coal burners are retrofitted to also burn cleaner ammonia to reduce carbon emissions.

Yet the report noted that the cheapest version of ammonia is four times more pricey than coal, while the cleanest version - produced by renewables - is 15 times more expensive. Japan's goal of building a fully ammonia-fired turbine by 2030, while laudable, is also a highly costly endeavour, it added.

Another way is coal gasification, by which coal is partially oxidised to produce a less carbon-intensive synthetic gas mixture with a lower proportion of carbon dioxide.

The third method, carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), refers to the capture of carbon emissions from fuel combustion, industrial processes or even directly from the atmosphere. This can then be reused as input for manufacturing, or stored underground.

While CCUS has the potential of reducing emissions by 90 per cent, Japan has limited suitable CCUS sites and may run out of space in 10 years, the report said.

TransitionZero noted the potential value of these clean coal technologies in so-called "hard-to-abate" sectors such as cement or steel for which transition is not as straightforward.

Japan currently relies on imports for nearly 90 per cent of its energy needs. It generates about a third of its electricity from coal and 18 per cent from renewable energy.

It aims to achieve, by 2030, an energy mix of 19 per cent coal and 36 per cent to 38 per cent renewable energy, with the rest made up of nuclear (20 per cent to 22 per cent, up from 6 per cent), liquefied natural gas (20 per cent), oil (2 per cent), and hydrogen or ammonia (1 per cent).

Some observers, however, believe the nuclear goal is unrealistic amid the politically sensitive restart of power plants due to the Fukushima disaster.

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