In the land of the rising sun, climate efforts are falling behind

Sunset over Tokyo. Photo by Arto Marttinen.

by Imogen Malpas

Japan is no stranger to extreme weather events, nor to developing massive infrastructural defenses against them. At the beginning of the millennium, faced with a capital city susceptible to cataclysmic flooding, the Japanese government poured millions of dollars into the creation of Tokyo’s Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel, the largest underground water diversion system in the world. An impressive cathedral-like structure, the channel can divert the equivalent of an Olympic-sized swimming pool into the Edo River every two seconds. It is a masterpiece of civil engineering and a testament to sheer human determination to innovate our way out of any existential threat.

But even with the support of the Channel’s miles of tunnels, Tokyo today—not in some distant climate future, but right now—still faces the prospect of a flood severe enough to require the immediate evacuation of up to 1.78 million people. As climate change pushes Japan’s natural disasters to new extremes, efforts to out-design increasingly lethal weather patterns may be in vain. Rather than attempting to treat the symptoms of climate change, Japan must tackle its root causes.

This was the charge levelled at the Japanese government following the devastating events in the summer of 2018, which saw the country, which generates 83% of its energy from fossil fuels, brought to its knees by climate change-driven extreme weather. Over the month of July, huge swathes of southwestern Japan were inundated with water. Flash flooding and mudslides took the lives of over 200 people. Many regions set rainfall records by enormous margins.

As the rain fell, a heatwave was simultaneously gaining strength, burning through still-flooded prefectures and killing at least 65 people in a single week. 65 kilometres northwest of Tokyo, in the city of Kumagaya, the mercury had just hit 41.1 degrees Celsius—the highest temperature in Japan ever recorded. Just one month later, the Typhoon Jongdari made landfall, with 120 km/h winds injuring 24 and driving the evacuation of thousands. It was only a few short weeks before Typhoon Jebi—Japan’s strongest storm in 25 years—slammed into Kyoto, killing 7 and smashing a 2,591-tonne tanker into a road bridge. Completing a trilogy of destruction, Typhoon Trami followed hot on Jebi’s heels, cutting power to 750,000 homes and evacuating over 380,000. This time the winds reached 216 km/h.

This was record-breaking weather, and the media responded accordingly, running stories about the growing impact of climate change on Japan’s already storm-prone archipelago. Aired in an atmosphere of crisis, the stories ended with the familiar climate imperative: ‘Act now!’ But in the same year that unprecedented floods and rising temperatures wrought havoc on the country, the Japanese government released a report with a bizarre angle on climate change. Jointly produced by five government agencies, the report assured its readers of the opportunities for businesses to ‘take advantage’ of climate change. How? By building products to make heatwave-stricken homes and offices more comfortable, or designing sophisticated financial instruments to manage the economic risks of abnormal weather events.

Examples included Japan-based Dexerials Corporation’s heat-ray reflective window film, a product that promises to shield buildings from extreme heat, along with Kokusai Kogyo’s GPS technology that provides land management tools for farms struck by increasingly erratic weather-related disasters. The report made no mention of fossil fuels, carbon emissions or waste reduction, but did note that new varieties of oranges able to tolerate the heat are now being grown in Ehime, a prefecture that suffered 25 deaths and millions of dollars of damage in the 2018 floods. 

While such official responses to climate change are deeply out of touch with the urgency of the situation, it wasn’t long ago that Japan’s energy sector was poised to lead a worldwide energy transition. In 1997, when world leaders came together to sign the historic Kyoto Protocol, Japan was synonymous with fighting climate change. But its drive for clean energy faltered in 2011, when the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country’s eastern shores delivered a fatal blow to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant, in what would become the world’s biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

In the ensuing panic, the country’s nuclear reactors, which had been generating just under a third of Japan’s energy, were shut down immediately. The tide of public opinion seems to have turned against nuclear energy for good. In 2014, 59% of the public opposed switching the reactors back on. To date, nine reactors have been brought back online since the Fukushima disaster, bringing nuclear’s contribution to Japan’s energy mix up to 3%.

This disaster was a boon for the fossil fuel industry, as coal and oil were seen not only as safer than nuclear energy, but also a more reliable alternative to still-developing renewable energy sources. Japan’s reliance on imported oil and coal soared, and it took less than a year for Japan to become the world’s second biggest importer of fossil fuels. More than two decades after the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, just under 15% of Japan’s energy needs are met by non-carbon sources.

Comparing the Fukushima disaster with the even greater threat posed to Japan by climate change allows a certain irony to emerge. Not only were the Japanese government’s actions after Fukushima driven by all the urgency that has been so sorely lacking in their response to climate change, they also set the country on a path of self-destruction, as continued reliance on fossil fuels continues to warm our planet. But when it comes to Japan’s climate inertia, the impact of Fukushima is just one part of the story. To understand why the fossil fuel industry maintains its iron grip on Japan today, we need to look beyond the aftermath of this disaster and to ongoing conditions.

The long road to decarbonization

For many businesses, the decision to do without fossil fuels would doom them to a competitive disadvantage severe enough to threaten their existence. Instead, major Japanese corporations seek to place the burden of change on consumers.

Japan currently holds the most solar technology patents in the world, and is the leading manufacturer of photovoltaic devices, providing nearly half of the world’s quota. The islets and channels in its Western coastal regions offer significant tidal energy generation potential. Moreover, as a mountainous island surrounded by sea, Japan is perfectly placed for the development of wind technology. But the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry failed to award a single contract last year to a solar energy supplier to deliver energy to consumers, citing costs that exceeded government targets. Plans announced in 2013 to install tidal turbines along Japan’s coastline have not yet come to fruition, and public doubts about the reliability of wind power have been exploited by regional electricity companies who, citing variability issues with wind-generated electricity, are sticking to the ‘safe bets’ of oil and coal. 

Meanwhile, the Abe government refuses to take the lead on emissions reductions. The Japanese government’s ‘Long-Term Energy Supply and Demand Outlook’ pledged to increase the amount of energy supplied by renewables from 15% to 22-24% by 2030: a goal that was described as ‘modest’ by news outlets, and more bluntly by the country’s own Foreign Minister as ‘lamentable.’ In negotiations leading up to the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries were asked to present their own national emissions reduction plan. Each plan would work towards an overall global reductions target, while taking economic and infrastructural differences between countries into account. So far, so good—except Japan’s plan for a 26% reduction from 1990 levels by 2030 was widely criticized for falling far short of the plans produced by other industrialised nations. For comparison, the European Union is chasing a minimum target of 40%.

With the national climate strategy plagued by inertia, some Japanese businesses have begun mobilising to accelerate the energy transition. Last July, as floods swallowed the south of the country, a handful of companies, local governments and NGOs joined together to form the Japan Climate Initiative, a network independent of the national government and committed to fostering productive climate action. JCI’s mission statement is simple: ‘We believe that Japan can and should play a greater role in the world in realizing a decarbonized society.’

As of March 2019, the network includes 350 companies, and counts giants SoftBank and Fujifilm among its members. According to the network’s website, over 50 Japanese companies have committed to setting ‘science-based targets’ to reduce emissions. Many are signing on to RE100, the pledge to generate 100% of a company’s energy from renewables, and some local governments have even declared a goal of zero emissions.

But for many businesses, the decision to do without fossil fuels would doom them to a competitive disadvantage severe enough to threaten their existence. Instead, major Japanese corporations seek to place the burden of change on consumers. The Japanese technology giant Hitachi, for example, claims that since the majority of their emissions result from the use of their products by consumers, their hands might as well be tied. ‘It’s really a challenge,’ a Hitachi spokesman lamented, echoing Sony’s proclamation that the real problem lies in families’ failure to teach children about curbing carbon emissions. Never mind that in the last fiscal year, Sony Japan’s carbon dioxide emissions accounted for 75% of the company’s total global emissions—an increase from the previous year.

Such rhetoric serves to mask the driving force of ceaseless competition for profit that incentivizes the production of carbon-intensive and environmentally-destructive goods in the first place. This competitive logic prevails even as corporations are required to disclose their environmental impact. Revelations that Japanese carmakers Nissan, Suzuki Motor, Mazda and Yamaha have been faking vehicle emissions data could be just the tip of the iceberg of climate malfeasance. 

With the corporate sector at best an unreliable ally in the fight to reduce emissions, Japanese citizens have been working to pick up the slack. But this burgeoning climate movement faces its fair share of challenges too. 

Japan’s burgeoning climate movement 

Posing a defiant alternative to the Abe government and corporate sustainability, these protesters point to the only possible path forward: Japan must take responsibility for its historical emissions, and use its enormous wealth to help pull the planet back from the brink.

On February 22, 2019, 20 young people from Japan’s Fridays For Future chapter gathered in front of Tokyo’s Diet Building holding placards and shouting their support for climate justice. Though a far smaller spectacle than the crowds that gathered in Paris and Sydney, this act of rebellion marks a significant step forward in the fight to bring climate legislation to Japan. Public demonstrations in the country are uncommon, usually arising in response to only the most contentious social issues.

One of the largest gatherings of Japanese protestors took place in 2012, in response to the restarting of a nuclear reactor 16 months after the Fukushima disaster: around 100,000 people took to the street to protest the decision to bring the reactor back online. I spoke to a member of an online Japanese climate activist group, who put the numbers into perspective: ‘It was the largest demo in several decades… [and] it wasn’t that [big],” he noted. ‘Japan is a country of 127 million. Even considering the logistics, the greater Tokyo area is home to 30 million.’ But as it seeks to expand its reach into mainstream Japanese society, the climate movement will have to overcome a prevailing sense of apathy. Some see this apathy as unsurprising for a generation that came of age during Japan’s ‘lost years’ of economic decline.

This apparent lack of political engagement is compounded by the perceived social costs of protesting. A member of the group Climate Youth Japan suggested that ‘not only young people but also Japanese people generally feel that the hurdles to participating in [protest] actions are high.’ Views of social change in Japan tend to hew to tradition: let the government lead and citizens follow. In such a staid political climate, taking a stand as an activist means taking a serious risk. As the Japanese saying goes, ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.’ Street protests struggle to garner support in a culture that values adherence to the official channels of parliamentary politics.

As a member of an online Japanese climate activist group explained, ‘there’s a vote where everyone gets a chance to choose a representative. Then you should petition and call your representative. If a handful of people gather in the street to forcefully set the agenda on a topic, many see it as an unfair process.’ Those who do protest publicly will go to considerable lengths to cover their faces and preserve their anonymity. Police forces in Japan are known to keep databases on members of political movements, and participating in protest actions can spell significant legal and financial trouble.

While these risks are not unique to Japan, my activist contact pointed out that while some protests in Europe or America do find public support, in Japan, ‘you’d most likely just be labelled extremist or criminal, if you’re lucky enough for the media to pick up the story.’ My contact had touched on another barrier to the climate movement in Japan—awareness. 

The between awareness and action among Japanese youth remains a major obstacle for climate protests. Outside the Diet building during Fridays for Future protest, 18-year-old protestor Isao Sakai admitted that it was only thanks to an environmental science class he took during his time studying in the US that he was worried about the world’s projected future. Before then, he says he ‘didn’t care,’ nor do many of his peers. 

To turn this apathy into action, local activist groups are doing their best to tear down the status quo. Last month, young students and workers gathered in Saitama for the first ever ‘Power Shift Japan,’ a regional chapter of the worldwide climate summit network Global Power Shift. The event’s three days were filled with campaign brainstorming and strategising, culminating in the planning of two protest actions involving demonstrations in front of local landmarks. And it wasn’t only Japanese youth in attendance: activists from Hong Kong and Taiwan also showed up to participate, proving that the desire to mobilise against government inaction isn’t bound by national borders. The event, which many considered a test run, offered an outline of something new: a shining example of how online activism, institutional campaigns and street protests can fit together in a growing movement. It might just be the new blueprint for the next decade of Japan’s climate fight.

The Fridays for Future protest was organised via social media, where platforms uniting citizens around climate change are quickly spreading. Climate Youth Japan, Extinction Rebellion Japan, Fridays For Future Japan and 350.org Japan are just some of the spaces on Facebook where young activists post links offering advice on how to create a more environmentally-conscious workplace, or share news of school walkouts inspired by Greta Thunberg. The movement is age-inclusive: ‘Let’s move to action,’ a recent post on one group reads, ‘knowing that it’s not just young people but all generations who can work to combat global warming!’

These groups are not only passionate but increasingly direct in their demands. Climate Youth Japan’s ambitious five-point plan includes establishing a road map for the abolition of coal-fired energy and pushing clear goals for phasing in renewables. These plans are underpinned by two major goals: to achieve the Paris Agreement’s aim of keeping planetary warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and to ensure that youth ‘will be involved in the process of social decision-making’ to hold their country accountable for its climate contributions.

Posing a defiant alternative to the Abe government and corporate sustainability, these protesters point to the only possible path forward: Japan must take responsibility for its historical emissions, and use its enormous wealth to help pull the planet back from the brink. If this climate movement succeeds in catalyzing a dramatic political transformation, it might just save the land of the rising sun from a dark future. 

Imogen Malpas is a writer and teacher currently living and working in Nagasaki, Japan. Recently graduated from University College London with a degree in literature and neuroscience, her journalistic interests lie in the social and political responses to the environmental crisis.

Power = power

The Three Gorges Dam in China, the largest dam in the world. Source: Flickr
The Three Gorges Dam in China, the largest dam in the world. Source: Flickr

by Aaron Vansintjan

We are now at the precipice of a new energy age: the limits of the oil-and coal-based economy are becoming more and more visible. As governments and corporations dig deeper to find unconventional sources, so are communities resisting endless extraction and blocking its flows. People left, right, and center are trying to figure out what can replace fossil fuels as the primary source of power.

Wind turbines and solar panels are primary contenders for replacing the dominance of fossil fuel. Proponents argue that they are clean, non-polluting, efficient, and cheap.

Detractors, as best exemplified by the ecomodernists, argue that they can never provide as much power as other alternatives: hydro and nuclear. Respected environmentalists like James Hansen and George Monbiot have put their weight behind nuclear, saying that it is the only source of energy powerful enough to stop climate change caused by carbon emissions.

Many experts are jumping into the fray, holding spirited debates on the merits and demerits of each source of power. Investments, efficiency, productive capacity, innovation: these have become the arena of the renewable energy conversation.

Unfortunately, these finer details will have very little to do with what kind of energy will replace fossil fuels. In the future, energy will be, as always, a source of political power—and it is every government’s prerogative to secure as much of it as possible. The best way to do so is to install massively concentrated energy supplies—no matter how efficient or relatively productive these megaprojects are.

Take for example the case of India. The country finds itself at a crossroads: with incredible growth, terrible inequality, and a sizeable chunk of carbon emissions, it needs to figure out adequate alternatives to its coal-powered economy. But instead of subsidizing small-scale renewable energy—which would, if implemented, be more than enough for much of India’s impoverished rural population—the government is ramping up its plans for gigantic wind, thermal, solar, and hydro power plants, each of which are often met with resistance by local communities.

Why are governments in love with centralized forms of energy? A glance in the history books can give us some ideas.

In India, as with many rapidly developing economies, the government’s priority is to supply centralized power to its cities and industrial zones rather than to its impoverished countryside. The irony is that these cities are growing so rapidly because of mass dispossession, indebtedness, and destruction of rural livelihoods—in many cases precisely due to construction of large infrastructure projects such as hydro dams, special economic zones, and foreign land acquisition.

For the same reason, the UK is borrowing money from China to invest heavily in nuclear options, even as they are scaling back funding to wind, biomass, and tidal alternatives, which necessarily function at a small, local scale. And yet, the UK has some of the highest rates of energy poverty in Europe—something that could, in large part, be addressed by subsidizing small-scale renewables.

In very similar ways, the governments of countries like China, Vietnam, and Brazil are going full speed ahead with hydro and many are considering nuclear as a viable option. For these countries, efficiency, productive capacity, and new, innovative technological improvements are only secondary to whether they have control of the energy supplies.

Why are governments in love with centralized forms of energy? A glance in the history books can give us some ideas.

Before the age of renewables, governments rushed to control fossil fuels around the world, and worked to keep control of these resources as concentrated as possible. As Timothy Mitchell details in his book, Carbon Democracy, coal was an appropriate fuel for building nation-states because it was so centralized, easily extracted, and easily protected. In turn, the state was an excellent tool to help companies extract coal, because it had a monopoly over violence and therefore the power to control workers uprisings.

Consider the early stages of the industrial revolution. Just as Britain’s land was being enclosed—which involved the government formalizing property rights in favor of the elite—there was also a massive displacement of the rural population. Now dispossessed from their ancestral land, peasants flocked to cities in search of work. There were masses of “vagrants” who would do anything, if they could just have some bread. At the same time, Scotland and Ireland’s forests were just about exhausted: there was no more cheap fuel.

Coal’s concentrated energy allowed the first proper nation-state to emerge—or rather, coal mines and the British nation-state created each other.

Putting two and two together, English aristocrats and wealthy merchants opened coal mines, funneling labor into concentrated sites—which in turn powered the burgeoning textile, shipping, and agricultural industries. In order to encourage peasants to join this labor force, the role of the government was expanded to take account of the country’s population, count the “unemployed”, criminalize vagrancy, and outlaw foraging and subsistence hunting. Coal’s concentrated energy allowed the first proper nation-state to emerge—or rather, coal mines and the British nation-state created each other.

To demand living and working improvements, laborers in Europe and North America tried to block the sites and arteries of extraction through strikes and blockades. For this reason, oil was more useful for the British and American governments. Because it required even less workers to operate its extraction—most oil wells don’t need more than a few construction workers and engineers to be operated—the working class was less and less able to make demands, while the state had control of more and more energetic and political power.

Once again, the private sector and the state worked in concert to find alternative centralized energy sources. As the British Empire receded from the Middle East, American companies like Standard Oil made deals with newly-formed Middle Eastern governments, who were promised the benefits of oil extraction. In turn, when these governments tried to nationalize or democratize their natural resource, American and British governments would step in by threatening withdrawal of their support. In this way, the private sector’s profits have always been dependent on its alliance with states.

Historically, nation-states have always benefited from centralized forms of energy, and used it as a means to assert power over their people—and other people as well. Any control of energetic power by democratic movements was seen as threatening to states.

In the mid-twentieth century, social movements for democracy in the Middle East tried to overthrow governments imposed by the West, only to face oppression at the hands of Western-backed rebels and assassinations of their leaders. Attempts at taking democratic control over oil by the local population were constantly sabotaged. To preserve political control in the Middle East, Western countries supplied Saudi, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian dictatorships with prodigious arms deals at rock-bottom prices.

Historically, nation-states have always benefited from centralized forms of energy, and used it as a means to assert power over their people—and other people as well. Any control of energetic power by democratic movements was seen as threatening to states.

Because the legitimacy of states largely relies on their control over resources, they also have a tendency to build infrastructure that centralizes the extraction of those resources. Now that oil and coal extraction is becoming less easy to justify (and the rate of oil extraction and discovery is steadily decreasing), nuclear has become prohibitively expensive and risky, and many countries have maxed out the amount of hydro power plans they could feasibly build, governments will tend to support large centralized wind and solar plants, rather than small, decentralized, and autonomously managed renewables.

Another way the state tends to maintain power is by controlling the electricity grid. While electricity providers may be privatized, in every country, the state legalizes, develops, and manages a centralized grid to power its economy. Take this infrastructure away—or alternatively, undermine it by using wind and solar technology not connected to the grid—and the state loses much of its power—energetic and political.

Once again, India is a good example of this process. To a great extent mimicking the early industrialization phase of Britain, mass rural dispossession (largely due to rising debts of smallholder farmers, but often also caused by the building of hydro-power dams and the creation of Special Economic Zones, meant to facilitate industrial development) has lead to unprecedented rural-to-urban migration—in turn creating the slum cities we are familiar with from the news and movies like Slumdog Millionaire.

In order to employ these newly unemployed—or informally employed—masses, the state is creating massive energy infrastructure that can power the Special Economic Zones. Like early British industrialists, it’s connecting the need for cheap energy and mass impoverishment to attract industry at rock-bottom prices. In turn, lacking a large middle class, industrial development supplies the state’s primary tax revenue, which it so desperately needs to keep growing.

Dispossession of the poor, centralization of energy, and centralization of the state go hand-in-hand. It would therefore be against the Indian government’s interest to supply renewable, decentralized energy to its rural and marginalized population: this would help break the cycle of rural-to-urban migration that it depends on so much to stay in power.

 This explains why, even in the face of a climate crisis, politicians like Narendra Modi in India and David Cameron in the UK are refusing to subsidize localized energy systems that would be more than enough for India’s villages and much of the UK’s energy poor.

This explains why, even in the face of a climate crisis, politicians like Narendra Modi in India and David Cameron in the UK are refusing to subsidize localized energy systems that would be more than enough for India’s villages and much of the UK’s energy poor. It also helps us understand why Morocco is now building the largest solar power plant in the world, intended to power one million of its city dwellers—but not its most impoverished rural population.

It also explains why socialists like Leigh Phillips advocate turning to nuclear power because it increases the state’s power against neoliberalism.

If this is true, it has repercussions for what we call “renewable energy.” Decoupling energy supplies from the grid would present a challenge, not just to the energy companies, but also to the very basic structure of society, what some call “the establishment.”

A decentralized grid of renewable energy sources has the potential to take away power from the owning class, as long as the power structures that manage the decentralized grid also are decentralized. This would mean community-based management, allowing whole neighborhoods and towns to have a say over where their energy goes and how much they use. It could involve things like participatory budgeting and bioregional resource management. Decentralized energy requires a totally different political system to exist.

But this is still a pipe dream. Despite all talk of globalization and austerity, nation-states continue to reign supreme, and are showing little sign of disappearing any time soon. Perhaps state-centered energy politics—and by extension, highly centralized energy power plants—are our only hope to address climate change. Then again, as Timothy Mitchell’s book shows, states have a very poor track record when it comes to democratic and fair centralized energy systems.

What drives power plants is not just energy—it’s the power needed to make them a reality. In other words, those who control society also control the flow of energy, and vise versa.

In any case, this angle presents a very different picture of the debate between nuclear/hydro and wind/solar environmentalists. What both sides rarely get is that at the root of the energy discussion is also a power struggle. What drives power plants is not just energy—it’s the power needed to make them a reality. In other words, those who control society also control the flow of energy, and vise versa. At stake is not just global warming; it’s also who has a hand on the thermostat and who does not.

In a way, being at the precipice of a new age of energy also means being at the precipice of a new social structure. If we were to successfully decentralize sources of energy, we would also need to decentralize decision-making power. But if we were to want to keep the current economy going in some form, we’d need to stick to highly centralized energy systems, managed by highly centralized power structures. In both scenarios, the kind of political power structure you have will determine the kind of energy solution you’re going to get.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.