Japan is engaged in a national crisis over nuclear power, but the country has embraced natural gas. The United States, by contrast, is seeing a roiling national debate over natural gas and fracking, but concerns over nuclear power are muted. Each country is half right.
Gas, though a fossil fuel, produces fewer planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions when burned than coal, the fuel’s direct competitor. It also produces a lot less of other kinds of air pollution. Burning gas instead of coal would be a relatively cheap strategy to reliably produce cleaner electricity in a way that easily integrates into the existing electricity system, buying some time to develop and deploy carbon-free energy sources.
Another reason Japanese environmentalists want to burn so much gas is that they also want to quickly eliminate nuclear power. Following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident, the country has mostly kept its large fleet of nuclear power plants closed, though experts reckon some two dozen could safely and reliably produce massive amounts of carbon-free electricity in accord with strict new regulatory standards. Something must fill the void.
Renewables will not be able do so for a long time. A mountainous, land-poor country, Japan does not have much space for large wind or solar projects. When I asked him about these challenges, Koichi Yamamoto, the Japanese environment minister, played up his country’s investment in hydrogen fuel-cell technology. But scaling it up and making it truly carbon-neutral will still take a lot of time and money. Existing nuclear power plants, by contrast, simply need to be flipped back on, and they could provide years of emissions-free energy. But environmentalist and public opposition is pronounced.
The United States is something of a mirror image to Japan on this. The debate over nuclear power smolders on, but public acceptance of the technology is relatively high, and killing the energy source is not a priority for major U.S. environmental groups. That’s good: Nuclear plants provide the United States with about a fifth of its electricity, and the country’s emissions profile is much better for it.
But U.S. environmentalists and many other Americans hate fracking. Though decent regulations can handle the most concerning side-effects, several states and localities have banned fracking entirely. Green groups and manufacturers who want to keep their fuel prices extra low also strongly oppose natural gas exports — the kind that Harata wants to help move her country off coal.
The divergent debates in the United States and Japan show that people tend to worry about energy projects that feel physically near to them. Or, perhaps, that distance brings perspective. Moving to a green economy — that is, to a radically different way of producing and consuming energy — will require more than just the application of political will. It will require a big investment in technology and deployment enabling a transition that appears seamless to most people. There are only so many cost-attractive options available to manage this transition.
So countries should keep their options open. Invest in renewable technology, but also embrace natural gas if it helps them get off coal, then transition off gas as renewables become progressively cheaper. Keep an open mind on nuclear power, and certainly use existing reactors as long as feasible. First eliminate coal, by far the dirtiest fossil fuel. Then phase out energy technologies that are a lot less dangerous.