Photo: Braden Kowitz / Flickr
Last month Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Washington D.C. to cozy up to the new American president. It’s hard to find another world leader who has so openly embraced Donald Trump. Perhaps it’s their mutual fondness for an energy of the past that both wish to resurrect: coal.
While Trump’s promises – to open shuttered coal plants and bring jobs back to places like West Virginia and Wyoming – are likely impossible because coal can’t compete with natural gas or increasingly affordable renewables, the situation in Japan is far more worrisome. There, plans are well underway to open several new coal-fired plants, all with massive Government support. When online, they will emit tons of CO2 into the atmosphere — emissions that would severely limit our chances of meeting scientific climate goals — while also putting Japan’s fragile economy at immense risk.
“Japan pretends to be an environment and energy leader in Asia – but nowadays we couldn’t even pretend if we continue with policies of the current Government,” said Tetsunari Iida, the director the Japan-based Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP). “In a few years, we’ll be very behind.”
Japan’s Complex Energy Landscape
So why is Japan pushing forward with plans to build 47 coal-fired power plants in the coming years? The answer lies in the aftermath of the recent Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster, which resulted in the shuttering of nearly all of the country’s 50+ nuclear plants, eliminating a key source of baseload power. While dire predictions of rolling blackouts and power shortages made in the aftermath of the disaster didn’t come true thanks to a massive national effort to conserve energy, the central government and the power industry decided that Japan needed another baseload alternative — coal.
What’s missing in this thinking is, well, any consideration for climate change. Scientists and experts have called for the closure of existing fossil-fuel burning power plants to meet scientifically sound climate goals. But that doesn’t seem to concern Abe. While the Prime Minister hasn’t filled his cabinet with climate deniers like Trump, he’s been conspicuously silent on the subject while speaking in Parliament, according to Kimiko Hirata of the Japanese environmental KIKO Network.
“We checked the Prime Minster’s introductory speech to the [Japanese Partliament] every year – and since the second Abe regime, he hasn’t mentioned climate in his speech,” said Hirata. “It’s quite unusual compared to previous Prime Minister’s of the last 20 years.”
“[Abe] doesn’t have an interest in energy or climate at all – just thinking about the economic impact on the Japanese economy,” Hirata continued.
This is a significant about-face because Japan, until relatively recently, was a global leader in the fight against climate change. The country hosted the UNFCC meetings that led to the world’s first global climate change mechanism, the Kyoto Protocol. While it was flawed, it did result in real emissions reductions and at least placed the world on the path towards taking this global challenge seriously.
Japan is currently far ahead of its peers, with per-capita emissions well below those of the U.S. and most European nations, mostly due to its state-of-the-art mass transit systems. That progress, however, is at risk if coal plants are built, which is why environmentalists around the world are starting to focus on what’s happening in Japan.
“Fighting against new coal power plants is the huge task for us domestically,” Hirata said.
Not Just in Japan
Here’s where it gets worse: Japan doesn’t just want to build coal-fired power plants domestically; it wants to export coal technology to power-hungry countries in Asia, and in particular, Indonesia, where Japanese banks, most notably the Government-backed JBIC, are the lead investors in several giant coal power plant projects.
“Prime Minister Abe is really pushing for the export of good quality infrastructure – one of which is efficient coal-fired power plants,” said Hozue Hatae, from Friends of the Earth Japan. As many know, “efficient” is a misnomer. Coal is always dirty.
It’s a symbiotic relationship. Indonesia is one of the world’s top exporters of coal and is in line to provide fuel to Japan’s plants if they get built. Those plants in Japan aren’t enough, though, because the global coal market has collapsed, as countries like China, India and Vietnam all are cutting coal imports far ahead of schedule.
The Indonesian government’s solution? Replace the lost demand from foreigners with local consumption by constructing 117 new coal-fired power plants throughout the country. This would create 22,000 megawatts of new power generation capacity, and emit huge amounts of greenhouse gasses and dangerous pollutants.
Already, 20,000 people are estimated to die every year due to pollution connected to existing coal plants in Asia, a number that could rise to 70,000 if all planned plants in Japan, Indonesia and elsewhere are built.
Thankfully, that is not scenario set in stone, because nearly all of these planned plants are facing extreme local opposition. This is partly due to environmental concerns, but also the fact that their construction is already being marred by numerous land and human rights violations. All this begs the question: Why invest in coal?
“Coal is already a risky investment in today’s market. The controversy and grassroots opposition add to the economic pressure, bringing the financial viability of new coal projects into question,” Nicole Ghio, a senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club’s International Climate and Energy Campaign, told Planet Experts.
There is a better alternative that could also provide better returns for banks: renewables.
“Japan should be investing in this booming, clean-energy sector instead of taking a backward position on coal,” Ghio added.
Coal is Unnecessary
The truth is that just like America 15 years ago — when then-President George W. Bush and his administration were pushing for more than 100 coal-fired power plants to be built across the U.S. — Japan does not need coal. Its current energy mix is sufficient and renewables are growing despite the glaring lack of Government support.
“Japan has some of the best solar resources in the world,” said Ghio. “Ten gigawatts of new capacity was installed in 2014 and another 10 gigawatts in 2015.”
Even in Fukushima, which bore the brunt of the 2011 Nuclear disaster, locals are choosing solar, geothermal and wind power instead of nuclear or coal. If Japan invested the billions it wants to put into coal into renewable generation and storage, it could power the country for far less, prevent millions of tons of CO2 emissions and provide clean-energy jobs to thousands who need them.
The only thing more ill-advised than investing in coal in Japan would be America turning its back on a decade of clean-energy innovation and shifting back to dirty, inefficient coal. Thankfully, despite President Trump’s rhetoric, that future is unlikely, as few American banks would be willing to invest in such a risky industry, and countless activists across the country are ready to fight any return of dirty energy.
Let’s hope Shinzo Abe and Japan’s banks comes to their senses before it’s too late. Otherwise, both the environment and Japan’s economy are likely to suffer the consequences.