The Japanese leader never mentioned coal. In his 2 November speech at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida highlighted Tokyo’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 46 per cent in 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. He pledged billions of dollars to help Asia make the transition to cleaner energy. He stressed the importance of saving the world’s forests and reducing the disaster risk for vulnerable countries.
But by the time Kishida returned to Tokyo after a 12-hour stay in the UK, the Japanese media had become fixated on coal. The widely held perception: Japan’s reluctance to abandon the most polluting fossil fuel had left it out of step with global efforts to deal with the climate crisis. Adding to the embarrassment, the Climate Action Network gave its Fossil of the Day award to Japan for failing to seriously tackle climate change. Two days after Kishida spoke, the UK announced that 23 countries at Cop26 had committed to a complete phase-out of coal power. Japan – fourth among the world’s top coal-burning power producers – was not among them.
Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster a decade ago sparked public opposition to nuclear power, Tokyo has turned to fossil fuels to keep its economy chugging along. Coal-fired plants now produce nearly 30% of Japan’s electricity. (Only oil produces more.) For resource-poor Japan, coal is just too good to give up: abundant, cost-effective and crucial to maintaining a stable electricity supply.
Critics contend that Tokyo’s fondness for fossil fuels undermines its credibility. Japan was the last G7 member to stop government funding for overseas coal power projects. It’s also the only G7 country still building coal-fired plants: over the next decade, new plants are expected to be connected to Japan’s electricity grid, replacing dozens of ageing coal-fired generators that are slated to be decommissioned.
Japan’s Kiko Network, an environmental NGO, has led calls for Tokyo to adopt a more ambitious climate policy. The group has urged Japan to shut all coal power plants by 2030 and set stricter emissions reduction targets, ones that are consistent with the global goal of keeping the planet’s average temperature from exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. And the world’s third-largest economy could refashion itself as a leader in low-carbon energy inventions – since 2010, Japan has filed a quarter of all international patents in the field, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency.
But at least for the foreseeable future, Japan is counting on coal. The government predicts that solar, wind, biomass, hydroelectric and geothermal power will produce 38 per cent of Japan’s energy by 2030, up from around 18 per cent in 2019. Coal is expected to account for 19 per cent of the energy mix. Japan has yet to map out a detailed path to carbon neutrality by 2050, but it’s hoping to deploy new technologies that are still in development: generating electricity from ammonia and hydrogen, or removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it somewhere it won’t warm the planet.
In April, the country’s largest “integrated coal gasification combined-cycle” plant – what industry insiders call “clean coal” because it spews lower levels of pollutants – opened in Fukushima. But signs of a shift in Japan’s corporate sector are also emerging. Around the same time the Fukushima plant began operating, two energy consortiums cancelled plans to build similar coal-burning plants in the country’s western and north-eastern regions. Japan’s biggest banks, led by Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, say they will curtail financing for future coal power projects.
Meanwhile, hundreds of municipalities and regional governments around the country have signed on to begin drafting policies and reshaping their economies in preparation for carbon neutrality by 2050. It’s early days but the momentum is what Japan needs to begin believing in a cleaner energy future that doesn’t rely on coal.