G7 ministers promise more green energy use, but timeline on coal exit elusive – April 17, 2023

Climate change, energy and environment ministers from Group of Seven (G7) countries concluded their Sapporo meeting Sunday with promises of massive renewable energy expansion, especially wind power, and continued nuclear power development.

But the lack of a clear timeline to end coal dependency raised questions as to whether the world can effectively negotiate further agreements to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by midcentury and achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

To reach this goal, the G7 promised to speed up the phaseout of unabated fossil fuels. Including the term “unabated,” however, leaves open the possibility of current coal plants employing hydrogen and ammonia cofired plants as well as carbon capture and storage in the years ahead, all of which are controversial new technologies.

While Japan advocates the use of such technologies, energy experts have said they are likely to be costly and inefficient at meeting the Paris agreement goal.

The International Energy Agency has warned that more coal use is not the answer to meeting the 2050 net-zero emissions goal, and has called for an annual average 9% reduction in unabated coal-fired generation between 2022 and 2030, and a complete phaseout by 2040.

Japan’s position, adopted by the country’s ministers, is that each country has its own economic energy situation that requires different methods to achieve carbon neutrality.

“It’s important to aim for a common goal while recognizing that, in the effort to reach the common goal of net zero emissions by 2050, we should pursue diverse paths,” said economy, trade, and industry minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is also in charge of Japan’s energy policy, during Sunday’s news conference announcing the agreement.

In addition to the question of coal use, there were divisions over what role nuclear power should play. The G7 ministers concluded their Sapporo meeting just as Germany shut down its last three nuclear power plants, ending a decades long reliance on the energy source, and German environment minister Steffi Lemke said there were differences between her government and Japan over the future of nuclear power.

“Germany switched off its last nuclear power plants last night. There is now a question on the further usage of nuclear power (worldwide) given the (March 11, 2011 disaster at the) Fukushima No. 1 plant,” said Steffi Lemke, who is also in charge of nuclear safety.

The G7 generally continues to emphasize the benefits of current and future nuclear reactors, especially those members who opt to use nuclear energy. But members are divided in terms of specific support for future nuclear energy projects globally, especially the introduction of as-yet uncommercialized small modular reactors (SMRs).

While Japan and the United States are interested in developing SMRs partially for economic reasons, some studies have shown the technology will lead to waste problems that could significantly raise costs.

The Sapporo meeting offered good news to renewable energy advocates, with the G7 nations aiming to push up the total amount of offshore wind power generation to 150 gigawatts by 2030 — seven times the amount generated in 2009. The ministers also agreed to further promote floating offshore wind power, which does not need to be anchored to the seafloor.

The potential for offshore wind in Japan appears massive. Tokyo-based Renewable Energy Institute estimates that some areas of Japan have optimal wind conditions for terrestrial, fixed and floating offshore wind turbines that could generate 656 GW of electricity if fully utilized. Hokkaido alone could provide 49%, or 320 GW, of the total potential. A conventional nuclear power reactor in Japan, on the other hand, generates about 1 GW.

However, realizing even a fraction of that potential will require costly investments both in wind farms and the cables needed to connect them to the electricity gird so that they can power major urban areas.

This has raised some concerns about how much offshore wind-generated power may cost to consumers and businesses in Japan. Under the country’s feed-in tariff system, the price for floating offshore wind in the current fiscal year is ¥36 per kilowatt hour. Onshore wind is ¥15 per kWh, while solar power is between ¥9.2 and ¥16 per kWh, depending on the type of installation (for example, rooftop panels vs. land-based solar farms).

With the Sapporo summit over, attention has now turned to the role climate and energy issues will play when the G7 Leaders’ meet next month in Hiroshima, where those pushing for more renewables and a coal phaseout schedule are likely to continue pressing the issue.