Japan green lights new, soon to be stranded, coal assets


Japan has missed the memo about the dire economic and climate risks of fossil fuels, with its Ministry of the Environment taking a u-turn and preparing to ease its opposition to new coal power plants. In 2015 Environment Minister Tamayo Marukawa refused to endorse new coal projects on grounds that they would be inconsistent with the country’s target to reduce emissions 26 per cent on 2013 levels by 2030. However, with nuclear restarts proving slow and coal prices slumping, short-term economic self interest appears to be winning out over Japan’s responsibilities on climate action. Almost all advanced economies are abandoning coal, as are those – like China – looking for clean development. However, Japan has is not only looking to build 47 new coal plants at home, it is also supporting new coal abroad, allowing more dirty energy infrastructure to be locked in at time when the international community is cleaning up the climate mess fossil fuels have created.



Key Points

  • The days of advanced economies burning rocks and dinosaurs for energy are over. Japan is one of the only advanced economies still looking at coal, and it is likely to be a short lived disaster ending in stranded assets and further economic decline. The future is renewable, and those that fight it will only become increasingly marginalised economically and politically.
  • Japan is gambling its economy and the climate on coal for short term economic gain. While the shutdown of its nuclear fleet in 2011 afforded Japan some sympathy for rising coal use; oil and gas use has been dropping in recent years, and the country now has both a booming renewable industry and precipitously declining population projections. Japan has plenty of energy, and it is now expanding the dirtiest source purely because the fuel is cheap at the moment.
  • Locking in new coal infrastructure hurts international action on climate change. Japan’s support for coal at home and abroad is at odds with both its emissions reduction commitments, and to the spirit of international cooperation on decarbonisation following the Paris Agreement.


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Key Quotes

  • “As a rich developed country, Japan is obliged to take a lead toward decarbonization immediately. New coal plants, even with the highest possible efficiency, are still highly polluting, will continue to emit CO2 for decades, and are therefore incompatible with the fight against climate change, as embodied in the Paris agreement.” – International Director, Kiko Network, Kimiko Hirata
  • “Coal-fired generation plants simultaneously emit huge amounts of CO2 and air pollutants over a long period of time. Japanese citizens are already suffering from air-pollution related diseases due to coal plants. We are leading a campaign against the on-going coal-fired plant construction plan, which will worsen public health and harm future generations. The Environment Ministry, which is supposed to protect pollution victims, has made an extremely regrettable and abhorrent decision.” – Nishiyodogawa Patients and Family of Pollution-Related Diseases Association, Toshiyuki Ueda
  • “If confirmed, this policy would deepen Japan’s international isolation. It was already the only member of the G7 looking to build new coal plants. Instead of accepting the need to act on coal, it is digging deeper. Japan has to recognise the need to phase out coal power generation. The dominant utility companies are blocking action, and it appears that the Japanese government prefers to back them rather than protect its own citizens and consumers.” – Programme Leader – Fossil Fuel Transition & CCS, E3G – Third Generation Environmentalism, Chris Littlecott
  • “Given the combined impact of the ongoing decline in Japanese electricity demand, the continued rapid investment in solar capacity and selective nuclear restarts, Japan has no need for new thermal capacity. So this new decision will either drive overall thermal power utilisation rates down or lead to an accelerated coal plant closure program.” – Director of Energy Finance Studies, Australasia, Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, Tim Buckley
  • “Expansion of conventional coal isn’t compatible with climate sanity. Even the coal industry agrees, but pitches for “advanced” coal instead, which is both more expensive and more polluting than lower-carbon alternatives. The mark-up isn’t worth it: there are cheaper, cleaner alternatives.” – Senior Research Fellow, Head of Unit, Green Growth, The Overseas Development Institute, Ilmi Granoff
  • “The rise in coal imports comes down to economics.” Managing director of consultancy Energy Partnership, Jeremy Wilcox
  • “The figures are consistent with the government’s 2030 basic energy plan which aims to reduce LNG usage and maintain coal. This would seem to contradict the aims of the COP21 (Paris) conference in December that sought to reduce global carbon emissions.” Tom O’Sullivan of energy consultancy Mathyos Japan


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