The Debate

Japan Goes Green?

Tokyo’s new plan to focus on alternative energy will have global political and economic consequences.

(The following is a guest editor's entry by Dr. John W. Traphagan, Department of Religious Studies, University of Texas at Austin)

The new energy strategy announced at end of August by Japanese Environment Minister Goshi Hosono is a welcome development following the disaster in Fukushima.  The strategy, which tentatively calls for ending Japan’s reliance on nuclear power by 2030 and replacing the lost power by various renewable resources such as wind, biomass, and hydropower in the form of tidal electricity generation, has the potential to change not only Japan’s approach to power generation, but also to situate the nation in an important position in terms of international political leadership. 

Obviously, the strategy, if implemented, represents a concrete plan for Japan to extricate itself from its problematic continued reliance on nuclear power.  Not only does nuclear power represent a considerable danger in an environment that is so prone to the physical disruption in the form of volcanic activity and the potential for disastrous tsunamis and earthquakes, but at least when directly confronted with the problems of nuclear power the Japanese public has shown a distaste for the use of nuclear technologies—both as a power source and as a weapon

There are obviously additional benefits to this strategy beyond reducing the risk of nuclear disaster, in terms of Japanese economic development.  By encouraging the development of innovative power technologies, Japan has the potential to continue to grow as a leader in the production of new approaches to power generation.  Japanese companies such as Sharp (despite its current problems) have been important players in the production of solar collection technologies, and, depending upon how it is executed, Tokyo’s plan can contribute to encouraging Japanese leadership in the development of alternative energy technologies over the next decade, thus stimulating the economy. 

This strategy also places Japan in a position to lead politically on the international clean energy front.  With Germany and China launching initiatives aimed at joint research and investment in green technology last year, the new policy is a prudent political and economic step toward ensuring Japanese leadership in both the development and implementation of new energy technologies.  Japan’s potential for leadership in this area is also important when considering what has been a luke-warm interest in pursuing new forms of energy production in the U.S., in favor of developing new technologies for exploiting conventional fossil fuel reserves.  While both Democrats and Republicans have shown an interest in developing environmentally problematic technologies such as fracking (although Democrats are considerably less enthusiastic about these approaches to securing energy sources than Republicans), in the event of a Republican victory in November in the U.S. it seems likely that research and development of technologies such as solar and tidal energy production will be stymied.  Indeed, if the GOP manages to gain control of the White House, it seems unlikely that U.S. policies will favor the development of green energy—the Republicans in their 2012 platform appear to have become even more green-averse than in the past and have chosen to cling to their traditional position of doubting the validity of climate change. The 2012 GOP platform, which shows a strong inclination to support fossil fuel development and opposes extensive government support to develop clean energy technologies, makes it clear that the GOP lacks interest in leading in new directions. 

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If the GOP gains more power in the November elections, Japan has the potential to situate itself as an international political leader in the development of green technologies and to leave the U.S. looking at its collective economic taillights in the long-run, due to short-sighted policies that overlook the need for government investment in clean energy technologies.  Of course, the primary advantage of the new strategy is that it sets out a clear path for Japan to extricate itself from nuclear power dependence.  But the secondary political benefits of this strategy—both on domestic and international fronts—should not be overlooked and can be an important component of Japanese political influence in the future.