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Japan has announced that it will release over a million tons of radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi site into the ocean. The decision has angered neighbouring countries, including China, as well as local fishermen.

About 1.25 million tonnes of water has accumulated at the site of the nuclear plant, according to Tokyo Electric Power Company, known as TEPCO. Okuma Town in Fukushima was rocked by an earthquake which triggered a tsunami back in 2011. The disaster resulted in over 15 000 deaths, 160 000 residents being displaced as well as millions of gallons worth of radioactive waste being released into the Pacific. In 2013, National Geographic reported that TEPCO is handling “an ever-increasing amount of contaminated water – nearly 150 000 tons a year” on site. It includes water used to cool the plant, as well as rain and groundwater that seeps in daily. The water needs to be filtered again to remove harmful isotopes and will be diluted to meet international standards before any release, the government said.

The radioactive water, which increases in quantity by about 140 tonnes a day, is now being stored in more than 1 000 tanks, and space at the site is expected to run out around next autumn. At the end of 2020, it was calculated that tanks could hold 1.37 million tons of contaminated water, enough to fill over five hundred Olympic swimming pools. 

After months of deliberation, a panel of experts advised the Japanese government to allow the gradual release of the radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean. A minister, Yoshiaki Harada, said, “The only option will be to drain it into the sea and dilute it.” The government and TEPCO had previously stated they would not dispose of the contaminated water without consulting locals. Fukushima fishermen have voiced vehement disapproval to the current proposal, stating there would be serious economic and reputational damage on their part. Toru Takahashi, head of the Fukushima Trawl Fishery Association, says, “We cannot accept releasing the water into the ocean. People in some other prefectures are for the plan. But no one will buy fish from the sea where the water is discharged. Everybody will think fish from Japan are dangerous.” 

Work to release the diluted water will begin in about two years, the government said, with the entire process expected to take decades.

China called the plan “extremely irresponsible,” accusing Japan of reaching the decision “without regard for domestic and foreign doubts and opposition.” The Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement on its website, “This approach is extremely irresponsible and will seriously damage international public health and safety and the vital interests of the people of neighbouring countries.” Meanwhile South Korea said that it “firmly opposes” the move, a view shared by Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council.

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This move has drawn ire from environmental groups, Kazue Suzuki, Greenpeace Japan’s climate and energy campaigner, saying that it “completely disregards the human rights and interests of the people in Fukushima, wider Japan and the Asia-Pacific region. The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima.” 

However, the International Atomic Energy Agency supports the decision, since radioactive elements, except tritium, will be removed from the water or reduced to safe levels before it is discharged. The IAEA has also pointed out that nuclear plants around the world use a similar process to dispose of wastewater. Experts say tritium is only harmful to humans in large doses and with dilution the treated water poses no scientifically detectable risk.

 

Featured image by: Flickr 

South Korea has announced that it will try to become carbon neutral by 2050, although he stopped short of promising to achieve the goal. In a policy speech during a national assembly on October 28, President Moon Jae-in said that the nation would “respond to the climate crisis with the international community.”

South Korea’s declaration follows Japan’s pledge earlier this week to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and it joins other major economies who have set the same goal, such as the EU and China, who recently announced that it would become carbon neutral by 2060.

South Korea is one of the largest fossil fuel-reliant economies, with 40% of its electricity generated from imported coal and less than 6% from renewables. It still has seven coal power units under construction and it is one of the top three public financers of overseas coal power projects

To become carbon neutral by 2050, Moon says that South Korea will commit itself to ending its dependence on coal by investing USD$ 2.1 billion next year in renewables as part of its Green New Deal as well as investing $3.7 billion to increase charging stations for electric vehicles. The Green New Deal was set up in July 2020, which plans to end the financing of overseas coal plants and create urban forests, establish a carbon tax, plan for recycling and establish a foundation for renewable energy. It was also set up to help the country achieve a green economic recovery post-COVID-19.

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According to the International Energy Agency, the country was the world’s 7th largest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2017 and the current trajectory will result in only 24% reduction in emissions below 2017 levels by 2030. Campaigners have warned that South Korea will need to change their energy policy to have even the slightest possibility of reaching their zero-emissions target. 

The government announced earlier this year that its 60 coal-fired power stations would be halved by 2034, with new liquefied natural gas plants making up the deficit. 

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was “very encouraged” by President Moon’s commitment to get South Korea to net zero emissions.

Through closing coal-fired power plants and plans to cut 24 nuclear power plants to 17 by 2034, Moon’s government hopes to rely on renewable energy, like wind, water and solar power. However, shutting down nuclear plants will make the 2050 goal much more difficult to achieve, as its plan to cut its nuclear plants will reduce the sector’s energy output by nearly half.  

Although there is still a lot to do, “South Korea is finally one step closer to aligning itself with the reduction pathway compatible with the Paris climate agreement goal,” managing director of NGO Solutions for Our Climate, Joojin Kim, says.


Featured image by: Flickr

Japan has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2050 according to prime minister Yoshihide Suga, who says that responding to the climate crisis is “no longer a constraint on economic growth,” a bold and welcome move by the world’s third-biggest economy and fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter.

The country has revised its earlier commitment of achieving an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 followed by becoming carbon neutral “as soon as possible” in the second half of the century. Japan is now in line with the EU, which set itself a similar target last year, as well as China, who recently announced that it would become carbon neutral by 2060

Suga says,”We need to change our thinking to the view that taking assertive measures against climate change will lead to changes in industrial structure and the economy that will bring about growth.”

Japan’s current energy plan, set in 2018, calls for 22-24% of its energy to come from renewable energy, 20-22% from nuclear power and 56% from fossil fuels. It currently plans to reduce its dependence on coal, decreasing its contribution to the country’s electricity generation from 32% in 2018 to 26% by 2030. 

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Suga did not provide details on how the country will reduce its emissions to zero, but said that it would promote renewable energy and prioritise safety as it seeks a bigger role for nuclear energy. He added that he would speed up research and development on next-generation solar batteries and carbon recycling and promised to “fundamentally change Japan’s long-term reliance on coal-fired energy.”

However, for Japan to achieve carbon neutrality will require a massive overhaul of the infrastructure in the country, which remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels; in fact, the country plans to build or is in the process of building 17 new coal-burning power plants. Therefore, there are doubts that Japan will be able to achieve this goal, not only given its reliance on fossil fuels, but also the public opposition to increasing nuclear energy’s share of the energy mix after the 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. 

By the early 2000s, the country had made progress in reducing its emissions through the use of nuclear power, which constituted roughly a third of Japan’s total power supply. Japan has struggled to cut emissions since the Daiichi incident, which forced the closure of dozens of nuclear reactors, only a small number of which have restarted. 

The use of nuclear energy has been widely opposed in the country since 2011, and Suga’s announcement that Japan would continue to develop nuclear power- with “maximum priority on safety”- nevertheless drew boos from members of Parliament. The country may then have to explore other cleaner technologies to generate power.

Japan is already considering a substantial increase in wind and solar power, and it is also looking at newer, less-established technologies, such as plants that burn ammonia or hydrogen. 

The country has also pledged to end government subsidies for the export of coal-fired power technology to developing countries; it is currently supporting three such projects and says that it will consider financing more only in “exceptional” cases.

According to Takeshi Kuramochi, a climate policy researcher at the NewClimate Institution in Germany, says that Japan’s decision was most likely driven by a “combination of domestic and external political pressures.” He added that Suga may have felt that it was important not to allow China to assume leadership on the issue. As a developed nation, “it would be somewhat embarrassing for Japan to have a net zero emissions timeline later than China,” he adds. 

150 municipal governments in Japan have already pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050. 

Japan is already feeling the consequences of the climate crisis. Rising temperatures have contributed to deadly heatwaves in the last few years and scientists say that the crisis also contributed to the size and intensity of the devastating typhoons that struck the country last year. 

Featured image by: Flickr 

Volunteers in Mauritius are working to keep leaking oil from a ship away from the island. In late July, the ship- believed to be carrying over 4 000 tons of fuel oil- ran aground on a coral reef off the Indian Ocean island. The oil spill threatens Mauritius, an island nation that depends heavily on tourism to make money.

Locals have been seen stuffing straw into fabric sacks to contain and absorb the oil, going against orders from the government, who has asked people to leave the clean-up to local authorities. Helicopters are attempting to move some of the fuel and diesel off the ship. Wildlife workers and volunteers rescued dozens of baby tortoises and rare plants from an island near the spill to the mainland.

The ship- called the MV Wakashio- ran aground at Pointe d’Esny, a known sanctuary for rare wildlife. The oil spill area also houses wetlands that have been designated as a site of international importance by the Mauritius Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. 

Mitsui OSK Lines, the operator of the ship, says that it tried to place its own containment booms around the vessel but due to rough seas, was unsuccessful. At least 1 000 tons of oil is thought to have leaked into the waters surrounding the island nation. 

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mauritius oil spill
The spill site on August 7, 2020 (Image: Maxar Technologies). 

Akihiko Ono, executive vice president of the ship operator, ‘profusely’ apologised for the spill and for the ‘great trouble we have caused’. He promised that the company would do ‘everything in their power to resolve the issue’. 

On August 7, Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of emergency and asked the international community for assistance. He added that the country ‘doesn’t have the skills and expertise to refloat stranded ships’. 

A police inquiry has been opened into possible negligence but environmentalists and residents have asked why it took so long for authorities to respond to the oil spill.

France has sent a military aircraft with pollution control equipment from its nearby island of Réunion. Japan announced it would dispatch a six-member team to assist the French efforts.

Happy Khamule, climate and energy manager from Greenpeace Africa, warned that thousands of animal species were ‘at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius’ economy, food security and health’.

Heavy winds are expected to exacerbate the oil spill even farther along the island’s shore. The Mauritius Marine Conservation Society and other groups have warned that the oil spill cleanup could take much longer than expected. 

This is a developing story. Follow Earth.Org for more.

Featured image by: Reuben Pillay/Reubsvision.mu/Via Reuters

Over the first half of the year, more coal power generation capacity has shut down than has started operation around the world for the first time on record, according to a US research and advocacy group. 

The Global Energy Monitor, which tracks fossil fuel development, found that the closure of coal generators across Europe and the US, exceeded stations being commissioned, largely in Asia. 

China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, dominates coal power development, having built nearly two-thirds of the world’s operating plants and being home to nearly 90% of generators under construction. 

However, the amount of coal power commissioned in China to the end of June was more than 40% below the same period last year, at 11.4 gigawatts compared to 19.4 GWs, because of COVID-19.

Thankfully, India shut more capacity than it opened. New Delhi commissioned 0.9 GW of coal generation, while 1.2 GWs were closed and more than 27 GWs of proposals were cancelled. 

Christine Shearer, Global Energy Monitor’s coal program director, says that India had reduced the amount of coal it planned to build because it struggled to compete with cheaper alternatives, such as new solar and wind. 

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She adds that the global decline was due to COVID-19 and record retirements in the EU after the carbon price was increased and pollution regulations tightened. Coal-fired generation fell by an estimated 3% last year. 

China and India’s coal fleets were running at barely half capacity before the pandemic started, but China was continuing to grant permits for construction at the highest rate since 2016. 

There is already overcapacity in China’s coal industry. A study from the University of Maryland projected that the average utilisation rate of the country’s coal plants could drop to 45% by 2025. 

“The COVID pandemic has paused coal plant development around the world and offers a unique opportunity for countries to reassess their future energy plans and choose the cost-optimal path, which is to replace coal power with clean energy,” says Shearer.

Globally, 18.3 GWs of coal power was commissioned in the first half of the year, and 21.2 GWs shut. About 8.3 GW of this was in the EU, with Spain shutting half its fleet and Britain going coal-free for two months, and 5.4 GW in the US. 

Japan opened 1.8 GW but plans to retire 100 inefficient coal-fired units and Germany opened the 1.1 GW Datteln coal plant. About 72 GW of planned new coal was cancelled, but 190 GW remains under construction. 

IPCC scenarios suggest that coal power generation must fall 50% below current levels by 2030 to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. 75% will need to shut over the decade to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Despite this, world demand for coal is set for its biggest annual drop since World War II because of COVID-19, according to the International Energy Agency. Additionally, global investment in offshore wind power increased 319% in the first half of the year, with financing approved for 28 new projects totalling USD$35 billion, more than what was approved in all of 2019

Featured image by: Henk Verheyen

Retailers in Japan have started charging for plastic bags, in a move aimed at cutting down on plastic packaging and waste. Shops can decide how much to charge customers for the bags, with a common price being three yen (around three US cents). 

Stores are being asked to charge at least one yen for bags and they may also start distributing free, reusable plastic shopping bags, as well as bags that are decomposed by microorganisms in the sea and those containing at least 25% biomass materials.

Japan’s Plastic Waste

According to the UN, Japan is the second-highest producer of plastic packaging waste per capita in the world, behind the US. The country produces more than nine million tons of plastic waste a year, and in 2018, it vowed to reduce this by 25% by 2030. In December 2019, the government revised the law on containers and packaging recycling, hoping to encourage more people to bring their own bags when going shopping. 

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The government said in a policy document that the fee “is aimed at prompting people to think twice if a bag is really necessary and helping people to review their lifestyles.”

To tackle the high rates of marine plastic waste in the country, its Environment Ministry has launched a campaign to raise the proportion of shoppers who do not seek plastic bags at stores from 30% in March this year to more than 60% at the end of this year. 

“We will roll out plastic shopping bags fees in hope of making people aware of [the seriousness] of the global issue,” said Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi at a news conference on Tuesday last week. 

Japan has a robust waste management system, with government statistics saying that more than 80% of its plastic waste is recycled. However, much of this recycling involves incinerating plastic, often to produce energy, which generates carbon dioxide.

Although plastic shopping bags account for only around 2% of all plastic waste produced in the country, the government hopes that this fee will encourage consumers to change their packaging habits and be more mindful of their impact on the environment. In the long term, it hopes that the fee becomes the catalyst for more widespread reductions in the overall plastic waste.

Featured image by: Keng Susumpow

Fukushima, a prefecture in northeastern Japan synonymous with a devastating nuclear meltdown, is seeking to transform itself into a renewable energy hub, a move seen as an effort by the prefecture to break away from its nuclear past and embrace a renewable future. On a national level, however, progress in this realm has been murky.

In March 2011, Fukushima experienced a powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The devastating natural disasters set off nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, known as the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. 

When the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck, eleven reactors at the nuclear plants shut down automatically. However, the 15-meter tsunami disabled the reactor cooling system and caused a triple nuclear meltdown. The disaster released radiation into the atmosphere and water, forcing the evacuation of over 150 000 residents.

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Since then, the government and the operating company of the nuclear plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company, have been working to clean up and contain the damage, deploying thousands of workers to remove the radioactive material: wiping stains from roofs, cleaning roadside ditches, and raking leaves from under trees, which have been contaminated by radioactive material.

The plant operator has also been injecting water into the melted reactor cores to keep them cool. As the plant will likely run out of storage space by 2022, officials are devising strategies of what to do with the 1.2 million tons of treated radioactive water stored at Fukushima.

A panel of experts has proposed to re-treat the tainted water to safe levels and slowly discharge the water into the sea, but local residents, especially fishermen, strongly oppose this, fearing that it could hurt the reputation of local fishery products. Nevertheless, the government is leaning toward either dumping the water into the ocean or vaporising the water into the air. However, no date has been announced for implementing this plan.

Japan’s Renewable Energy Policy

In the meantime, Fukushima is moving towards a renewable future. The prefecture is dismantling the crippled nuclear power plant reactors and leading the national renewable energy drive. The local government has set a target of supplying Fukushima with 100% renewable energy by 2040, compared with 40% today.

Fukushima has been earmarked as a $2.75 billion renewable energy hub for developing 11 solar plants and 10 wind farms on contaminated former farmland and mountainous areas. The project is expected to generate up to 600 megawatts to power the Tokyo metropolitan region. 

The construction of the project- financed by the government-owned Development Bank of Japan and Mizuho Bank, among others- is expected to be completed in 2024.

Renewable energy is viewed positively by residents in Fukushima, according to a 2017 survey, with 54% of residents saying that they wanted renewable energy, compared to 14% who did not.

Fukushima also hosts a number of renewable energy organisations, in which the researchers seek to improve the technology and efficiency of renewables, such as solar photovoltaic, wind and geothermal energy. The prefecture has received support from Japan’s government and businesses to become a testing ground for renewable technologies.

Nine years after the catastrophe, anti-nuclear sentiment remains entrenched among Japanese people. A number of polls found that the vast majority of Japanese citizens have lost faith in nuclear power and favour the phasing out of nuclear plants. Preceding the disaster, Japan depended on nuclear energy for roughly 30% of its electricity. However, in 2018, nuclear contributed only 4.7% to the nation’s energy mix.

In the aftermath of the nuclear meltdowns, Japan shut down all of its operational 54 nuclear plants to undergo inspections and updates for more stringent safety requirements and has planned to restart 30 reactors in an attempt to make nuclear power account for up to 22% of its overall energy mix by 2030.

Still, the national plans to reactivate idled nuclear plants have progressed slowly, impeded partly by stiff resistance from local residents and a spike in the safety costs. Therefore, the country is predicted to miss its 2030 nuclear target, an analysis revealed.

The prefecture’s nuclear-to-renewables transition is happening at a time when researchers and governments around the world are discussing the importance of nuclear energy in reducing fossil fuel emissions and tackling the climate crisis. Japan’s stall in emissions reduction commitments have been criticised. 

The country recently unveiled its plans for tackling global warming, leaving carbon reduction targets largely unchanged from its existing commitments in 2015 towards the Paris Agreement. Its targets, a 26% reduction in emissions by 2030, are classified as ‘highly insufficient’ by the Climate Action Tracker analysis; if all government targets were at this level, global warming would exceed 3°C by the end of the century.

Once an avid proponent of climate action, Japan has appeared lukewarm in its commitments at UN meetings in recent years. The country is now taking on fossil fuels by settling for weak targets and regulations to fund coal, something that would lead to economic and environmental ruin, said Kimito Hirata of the Kiko network, a climate group in Japan.

However, renewable technological development has yet to be able to meet a region’s continuous energy demand. That means phasing out and rejecting the construction of new nuclear plants, a carbon-free and reliable energy source, may encourage countries to turn to fossil fuels for reliable energy supply, something which cannot happen if the world wants to decrease its emissions. In 2018, Japan generated around 17% of its energy from renewables and around 78% from fossil fuels and remains one of the only developed countries still building new coal-fired power stations.

There is still an opportunity for Japan to modify its targets, however, and will be further discussed at the United Nation climate talks, Cop26, which were postponed to 2021. 

However, if Japan wishes to make the shift to fully renewable energy, it must hold Fukushima accountable for its promises and apply it to the rest of the country.

Featured image by: Jeanne Menjoulet

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