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The Great East Japan Earthquake: Japan at a Crossroads and Hints for Asia

Following the Great East Japan Earthquake and accidents at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, Japan is called upon to reevaluate its energy policy to date and to promote a shift in policy.

In this interview, we asked Professor Jusen Asuka, Director of the IGES Climate Change Group, about the effects of the recent disasters on the energy and environmental policy and the global warming mitigation measures of Japan. We also asked him to elucidate on any hints the recent events may provide for Asia, where natural disasters are frequent.

Jusen Asuka
Graduating from the University of Tokyo (PhD), Prof. Asuka joined IGES in April 2010. Environmental and energy issues in Northeast Asia, especially in East Asia, where economic development is currently proceeding at a dramatic pace, is the focus of his work. Examining these issues in broad as well as multidimensional perspective, he seeks to clarify not only the historical process by which they emerged and the circumstances they involve today, but also what forms of international cooperation are feasible for dealing with them. In particular, he employs the perspectives of political science, economics, sociology, and other social sciences to develop recommendations for treaties and protocols as well as for environmental taxation, emissions trading, and other specific domestic and international policies and measures designed to deal with problems such as global warming that lie beyond the power of any one country to solve.

May 2011

The Great East Japan Earthquake:
Japan at a Crossroads and Hints for Asia


Jusen Asuka
(Director, Climate Change Group, IGES)


Recent events have produced a paradigm shift in Japan's energy policy

--- After suffering the Great East Japan Earthquake and the accidents at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan most certainly stands at a crossroads regarding energy and environmental policy. In what specific ways must Japan reevaluate its energy policy to date?

Asuka:
The decision to shut down the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant was made. This decision pertains to the collective opinion of the people that will no longer condone promotion of nuclear power or the expansion of nuclear power plants after suffering the Great East Japan Earthquake and the nuclear accidents at Fukushima. Moreover, it shows the government’s recognition of the risks of nuclear power. Until now, nuclear power was said to be absolutely safe. In my opinion, debating countermeasures according to the precautionary principle has been considered taboo in Japan. The recent decision made regarding the Hamaoka plant did away with this taboo. This major decision to consider future risk was hinged on the probability of the occurrence of an earthquake in the Tokai region, an extremely vague numerical figure. Thus, I believe this recent decision was not only significant as it relates to Japan’s energy policy, but was an extremely historical decision from the perspective of the policy-making of Japan in general.

Hereafter, a key issue will be the ways in which the government and industrial sector, that have supported nuclear power until now, will alter their positions. It is my present understanding that some people in the government are making an attempt to alter its policy to date. As expansion of nuclear power is difficult, the market for renewable energies will expand, technological progress will be stimulated and competitiveness will be heightened. Yet, whether we choose to pursue renewable energies or promote energy conservation, the details remain unclear, such as who will carry out the work, how it will be carried out, and who will bear the burden for it. Discussions must be furthered based on the experiences that will be had this summer after the predicted power shortages. These issues are exactly those on which IGES can provide concrete proposals and actively present the merits and demerits of various options.

A national discussion is required for new energy and climate change policies

--- It has been commented that reevaluation of Japan’s target for a 25 percent cut in 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 should also be the subject of debate. How would such a reevaluation affect Japan’s future climate change mitigation, and how would it affect international negotiations working up to COP17?

Asuka:
While some have voiced the opinion that the 25 percent reduction will be difficult to achieve without nuclear power, several research institutions have issued proposals that claim the target is feasible even without nuclear power. Rather than debating on which opinion is correct, a national discussion focused on trends in nuclear power and advancement of energy conservation is essential. Targets for global warming mitigation do not depend upon whether or not they can be achieved, but whether or not there is sufficient will to achieve them, and whether or not the people will accept them. Likewise for energy policy, I believe we are now paying the bill for not having involved all citizens in consideration of global warming mitigation in the past. At this point, it is premature to raise the subject of whether the 25 percent reduction target can be adhered to or not. I think it is more appropriate for the time being to say that we have not yet arrived at the stage of debating the particulars. Furthermore, I feel that the particular view that Japan need not promote global warming mitigation measures that much, using the earthquake as an excuse, will not be easily accepted by the international society.


Japan and developing Asia can learn from one another

--- Natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and floods frequently occur in Asia. Does the recent earthquake disaster in Japan provide Asia any hints for solving environmental problems?

Asuka:
The greatest damages wrought by global warming are floods and droughts, and agriculture and humanity suffer enormously. The type of damages that we feared would result from global warming actually occurred in Japan. In terms of floods, developing countries of Asia are expected to suffer the greatest from global warming from the perspective of the cost of damages as well as the population affected by damages. Meanwhile, even developed countries in Asia such as the Republic of Korea and Singapore will feel the effects of global warming on their infrastructure and could potentially suffer considerable damages. Accordingly, the recent earthquake disaster forces us to consider potential global warming damages in Asia.

Moreover, measures are already in place to address floods and tsunamis in many countries of Asia, where natural disasters are frequent. Japan’s recent earthquake disaster has made me realise that Japan has much to learn from the experiences of other Asian countries, and that it is extremely important to share knowledge among countries. On the other hand, it is necessary for Japan to relate the lessons learned from the recent earthquake to other countries. Japan’s present attempts to conserve electricity will lead to energy-saving initiatives that could be disseminated to other countries in Asia.

--- Thank you very much.




About "Monthly Asian Focus: Observations on Sustainability"

Until 2010, IGES has released “Top News on the Environment in Asia” on a yearly basis. For over 12 years since its establishment of IGES in 1998, “Top News” has collected and organised information about environmental issues and policy trends in the region.

In January 2011, IGES launched the new web-based series "Monthly Asian Focus: Observations on Sustainability" in which leading environmental experts deliver their take on latest trends of sustainable Asia.

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