Japan’s Centre-Right Goes Green

In an era of Brexit, negative interest rates, and Trump, we are getting used to the emergence and endurance of the unreal. But for something completely different, consider the strong signals of a sea change on energy policy coming from Japan’s business community. A lot of business elites have clearly thrown in the towel on nuclear and are instead openly lobbying to have Japan vault to global leadership in renewables, efficiency and smart infrastructure.

One telling piece of evidence is a June 28 report and list of policy recommendations from the influential Keizai Doyukai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives, hereafter “KD”). The KD report is titled (in Japanese) “Towards the World’s Leading Zero-Emissions Society: Measures for an Increased Deployment of Renewable Energy.” The KD is not anti-nuclear per se; indeed, the report’s signatories include representatives from nuclear-owning Kansai Electric and Kyushu Electric. All the same, the KD declares that regulatory, legal and other hurdles mean nuclear power will likely not reach the 20-22% of electricity generation targeted by the country’s Basic Energy Plan. The KD therefore argues for an all-out effort on renewables and energy efficiency, rather than continuing to fill the gap with natural gas, coal and oil. It points to last December’s COP21 agreement on climate change, and subsequent developments, and is adamant that Japan reduce its reliance on fossil fuels as much and as soon as possible. Moreover, the KD insists on this approach for environmental reasons as well as to make Japan a leader, rather than a laggard, in the race to zero-emissions energy.

The KD is a powerful organization, one of Japan’s 3 top national business councils. Its roughly 1,400 members come from about 950 corporations, including Nissan, Mitsubishi, Marubeni and other household names, but they join as individuals. As the KD emphasizes, “each member sheds his/her corporate identity and participates as an individual, free to express opinions and ideas unconstrained by the interest of any specific company or industry.” This feature makes KD distinct from Japan’s other business lobbies, allowing it to take a broader, more long-term perspective. And under its Chair, Kobayashi Yoshimitsu (Chairman of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings), who took over the reins in April of 2015, the KD has stressed “Toward a Sustainable Society: Japan 2.0.” This program links Japan’s fiscal, demographic, energy and related crises with climate change, inequality and other global challenges, and seeks solutions through embracing innovative thinking and technology.

The KD’s holistic thinking is evident in its June 28 publication, discussed earlier. It was also prominent at a KD seminar on regional revitalization, held in mid-April. The event was the KD’s largest ever, with 1,420 business participants. One of the conference sessions was titled “Revitalizing Regional Economies Through Distributed Energy.” The speakers included such highly regarded figures as Ichiriki Masahito, Chair of the KD’s Sendai Branch and President of Kahoku News; Asada Teruo, Vice-Chair of the national KD as well as President and CEO of Marubeni; Abe Toshinori, President and Chief Operating Officer of Sekisui House Ltd; and Kashiwagi Takao, Distinguished Professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and a key advisor on energy policy to the Japanese cabinet. Their panel argued that Japan’s reliance on nuclear energy should effectively be phased out, with no minimum target, and that local economies be bolstered through an aggressive expansion of renewable energy and smart community infrastructure.

And the above are just two examples of Japan’s powerfully emerging centre-right narrative of using renewables/efficiency and smart heat/power grids for 1) disaster resilience, 2) local revitalization, 3) decarbonization, 4) energy security, 5) international engagement, and several other goals. So while the conventional wisdom holds that Japan Inc. is stubbornly committed to nuclear and coal, no matter the costs, perhaps it had better brace itself for a pleasant surprise.