Japan stubbornly sticks to coal

Japan stubbornly sticks to coal

A worker covers his face to avoid rising dust at a coal-fired power plant, partially financed by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, under construction in Kudgi, India in February 2015, part of Japan’s effort to build and export its coal technology.

(AP/Aijaz Rahi, file)

Shaken by the Fukushima nuclear accident, Japan has launched plans to open 49 new coal-fired power plants in the next decade to replace nuclear, even as electricity demand drops and other developed countries shift to renewables.

Japan is also looking to export their technology, which poses a serious threat to Asia’s environment as well as economy.

According to a report released in March 2017 by CoalSwarm, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, nearly 22,000 megawatts (MW) are in the pipeline in Japan, with construction already beginning on some plants. NGOs and trade unions are waging a campaign to try to halt that effort.

The coal boom is strongly supported by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The reason is connected to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, which heavily damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, leading to a national shutdown of nuclear power, a major source of electricity.

While the dire predictions made in the aftermath of this disaster – massive rolling blackouts and power shortages – did not come true due to a national effort to conserve energy, the central government and the power industry decided that Japan needed another baseload alternative: coal.

“For Prime Minister Abe, the priority is to...minimise the economic impact of the loss of nuclear power,” Yuri Okubo, senior researcher at the Japan-based Renewable Energy Institute, tells Equal Times. “His preference and support is based on utilities, and their big customers’ preference for coal.”

Shortly after becoming prime minister in 2015, Abe announced plans to restart some nuclear plants and expand domestic coal usage. This means that, despite being a signatory to the Paris Agreement, and, not that long ago, the host country for the conference the created its predecessor the Kyoto Protocol, Japan is one of the few developed nations that is still going forward with fossil-fuel dependent energy plans.

This is true even as its neighbours, including China and, most recently, South Korea shift away from coal towards renewables. “[Abe] doesn’t have an interest in energy or climate at all, he is just thinking of the economic impact on the Japanese economy,” said Kimiko Harata with the KIKO Network, an environmental NGO.

“There are strong ties between industry and government, and the government protects companies from risk,” added Hirata. “So even though coal does not make economic sense, it doesn’t mean it in practice, because the government supports [coal] financially through subsidies.”

This is not only true in Japan, but overseas as well.

Japan’s Overseas Plans

Japanese banks are among the leading financiers of coal plants, in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.

In 2015, a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council found that Japan was the top financier of coal projects globally between 2007-2014. With China shifting away from coal, the spate of bankruptcies in the United States, and more European banks making no-coal pledges, that gap has potentially widened.

“I am concerned that Japan is making other, more climate vulnerable countries, invest in something they may regret in the near future,” said Okubo. “Coal plants will contribute to increasing greenhouse gas [emissions] and locking-in inflexible energy sources.”

Hirata also sees a direct connection between Japan’s domestic plans and what is taking place overseas. “If Japan has a position to support coal technology at home, it is difficult for the government to change the policy for overseas finance,” said Hirata.

In fact, Japan’s goal is to export its so-called “clean” coal technology to power-hungry developing Asian nations, in particular, Indonesia where Japanese banks, most notably the government-backed Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), are the lead investors in several giant coal power plant projects.

Japan has even been trying to pass off these investments as “climate friendly” due to the supposed use of cleaner-burning technologies. The reality, according to Okubo, is anything but.

“Claiming that Japan’s coal technology will reduce CO2 emissions is anachronistic in a world where renewable energy prices are declining drastically,” said Okubo. “Even the best coal technology would emit CO2 almost twice as much as gas.”

Nowhere is the fight more central than in Indonesia, where plans are under way to build 117 new coal-fired power plants throughout the country, with Japan as a key investor.

This would create 10,000MW of power generation capacity in total, and emit huge amounts of not only greenhouse gas emissions, but also dangerous pollutants.

Already, estimates are that 20,000 people die a year due to pollution connected to existing coal plants in Asia, a number that could rise to 70,000 according to Greenpeace, if all planned plants in Japan, Indonesia and elsewhere are built.

Alternatives

In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, Japan, then led by the opposition, centre-left Democratic Party implemented a feed-in-tariff to encourage decentralised energy production to meet demand, which led to a mini-boom in solar.

However, in 2015, shortly after Abe became prime minister, several utilities in Japan put the brakes on allowing new solar into their grids, and Abe initiated a review of the renewable energy policies. Power companies contended the rapid growth in renewables was causing oversupply problems to the country’s decentralised power grid.

To Nicole Ghio, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s International Climate and Energy Campaign, this is a huge missed opportunity that could hurt Japan for years to come.

“Japan should be investing in this booming clean energy sector, instead of taking a backwards position on coal,” said Ghio. “New coal infrastructure is very expensive...Japan is essentially throwing away money.”

“The problem is compounded by the fact that Japan will have to import coal to fuel any new plants it builds, leading to ongoing costs for decades to come," he said.

ZENROREN, a national trade union confederation in Japan with 1.2 million members among its 21 affiliated unions, is a member of the Japan Network for Environmental Protection (JNEP), has taken a position against coal power generation both in Japan.

“The government’s plans would make Japan one of the biggest CO2-emitting nations in the world. JNEP and ZENROREN believe this [coal power generation] is not sustainable and counter-productive to the Paris Agreement. We campaign for changing the government’s energy policy,” said ZENROREN and JNEP in a joint statement.

In fact, a movement is emerging against Japan’s coal plans. Public pressure played a role in getting one proposed plant, near Osaka, withdrawn in 2015. It also brought to light numerous human and land rights issues connected to Japanese financed projects in Indonesia, such as the Batang Coal Plant.

Whether this movement can withstand Abe’s dedication to coal – or create a meaningful shift to cleaner alternatives – remains to be seen.