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Japan's Clean Energy Future

This piece originally appeared in Kyodo News.

Like many others around the world, I watched with shock and sadness as the tsunami and nuclear disaster unfolded over Japan a year ago.

Among its many impacts, the Fukushima disaster has left an indelible mark on energy policy, not only in Japan but in other countries as well. As the world was reminded and Japan has now learned through direct experience, nuclear power carries significant risks. The question for Japan is, how does the country adopt a less risky energy base while still meeting its power needs into the future?

While conventional energy sources such as coal and oil may seem like appealing options, these carry different but also high risks. In particular, such carbon-intensive energy sources contribute heavily to climate change -- to which Japan is increasingly vulnerable through more extreme weather and rising sea levels.

In addition, as the world's third-largest economy and sixth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, Japan carries some responsibility to protect the world's most vulnerable countries from dangerous climate change. It is thus important that as Japan enters into an intensive discussion about its own energy mix, it keeps climate change risk at the forefront and does not make decisions now that will have negative consequences for years to come. In particular, it would be a shame for Japan to invest in high-carbon infrastructure exactly when the world needs to urgently transition to a low-carbon energy system.

While the choice to take a different pathway poses challenges for Japan, there is one place it can look to see how it can be done: Germany, the world's second-largest exporting country.

Germany decided, after Fukushima, to expedite its phase-out of nuclear power in the next decade. In doing so, Germany had to answer many of the same questions that Japan is currently considering about how to meet its energy demands. Germany has set itself on a pathway consistent with both a nuclear-free and a near-zero-carbon economy.

Coupling ambitious climate change targets (reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80-95 percent by 2050) with a renewable energy target (80 percent by 2050) and an energy efficiency target (doubling of efficiency by 2050), Germany is in the midst of implementing a sustainable energy profile.

Of course, targets alone cannot ensure such a profile is achieved. Germany has worked over the years to create strong incentives and innovation ecosystems for it to drive to a low-carbon economy. While Japan has certainly been a leader on energy efficiency in the past, there are three steps in particular the country could take around renewables, efficiency, and carbon pricing that would avoid high-carbon energy while further scaling up renewables and energy efficiency to meet demand.

The first step would be to ensure that the Japanese feed-in tariff includes ambitious targets and tariffs. The second step would be to implement the cap-and-trade system that has been debated within the Japanese government for over a decade.

By auctioning pollution permits Japan could have funds to invest in the renewables, efficiency programs, and infrastructure needed, as Germany has done. The third step would be to invest in building a low-carbon power grid. Each of these steps would not only benefit Japan's domestic energy system, but also put the country in a much stronger long-term position by building competitive clean-energy industries and reducing the pollution that causes climate change.

Japan has withstood one of the massive disasters of our time, and the resolve of the Japanese people is a wonder to those watching from afar. Moving forward, the nation has the chance to invest differently this time -- not in the risky technologies of the past, but in lower-risk clean energy technologies that each day are becoming a bigger part of our common future.

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