This Country Is Embracing Coal While The Rest Of The World Is Trying To Cut Emissions

Protesters in Washington, D.C. on March 31 urge Japan to stop financing international coal projects. CREDIT: CINDY CARR, SIERRA CLUB
Protesters in Washington, D.C. on March 31 urge Japan to stop financing international coal projects. CREDIT: CINDY CARR, SIERRA CLUB

Scotland just closed its last coal-fired power plant. England said it will be coal-free in the next decade. The United States has the Clean Power Plan, which doesn’t exactly end coal, but it puts a pretty hefty damper on it. Even China has made a series of announcements signaling they are dropping coal.

Japan, on the other hand, is planning to build 45 domestic coal plants, and the Japanese foreign investment bank is considering financing a massive project in Indonesia. As host of the next G7 meeting and a powerful player on the international stage, Japan’s doubling down on coal is not great news for the climate — and environmentalists are wondering how long it will last.

Why Coal?

Coal has been a primary source of generation since electric power became widespread, accounting for 32 percent of generation in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in 2014, according to the International Energy Agency. And it has contributed hugely not only to climate change, but also to the air pollution that kills millions of people each year. Mining for coal is notoriously hard and dangerous, and it, too, has taken a massive environmental toll in the United States and abroad. In light of this, and the recent arrival of inexpensive wind and solar, much of the world is trying to move away from coal generation. In fact, according a new report from CoalSwarm, the Sierra Club, and Greenpeace, coal generation has declined for two years in a row. In Japan, though, coal consumption went up nearly 5 percent just last year.

But you can’t build efficient coal plants and solve the climate problem

Several historical pressures have come together to push coal to the forefront of Japan’s energy sector. The Fukushima disaster in 2011, when a tsunami caused the largest nuclear fallout since Chernobyl, is one factor. All of Japan’s nuclear plants were decommissioned in the aftermath, leaving a huge gap in power generation. The government is inspecting each one and might turn some back on, but the public is understandably skittish.

And it turns out that even before Fukushima, Japan was looking to add more coal-fired power. Japan has no fossil fuel resources. No gas, no oil, and no coal. Energy security — stable, inexpensive sources of power — is a key concern for the country. Until recent years, gas and oil were primarily available from the Middle East (now, the United States and Russia also are big natural gas producers), and after the oil crisis of the 1970s, Japan sought to find more stable, diversified supplies of power. One way they did this was decreasing electricity consumption. Japan has one of the lower electricity consumption rates in the OECD, using 7,752 kilowatts (kW) per person annually compared to the United States’ 12,954 kW. Another way was increasing its number of coal-fired power plants.

Right now, there are five coal plants under construction and another 41 under development in Japan, according to Kimiko Hirata, international director for the Kiko Network, a Japanese environmental coalition. And it is unclear how those plans will fit with the world’s recent pledge in Paris to keep global warming under 2°C. Japan’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) is equivalent to 18 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, a goal Climate Action Tracker rates as “inadequate.”

Investment Abroad

All this coal development, added to Japan’s strong banking sector, means the country has also become a powerhouse for international coal finance. And this, perhaps more than anything else, has drawn the ire of environmentalists.

Next week, the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation, a credit export bank, will decide whether to finance a massive, 2,000 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Batang, Indonesia. The project is four years behind schedule, largely due to protests from the local community in central Java, according to Nicole Ghio, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club.

The project is bad for the environment, bad for the climate, and bad for local communities

“The project is bad for the environment, bad for the climate, and bad for local communities,” Ghio said on a call with reporters earlier this week. Her group, along with Friends of the Earth and other environmentalists, protested Thursday in front of the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., seeking the attention of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in town for an international nuclear summit.

“The world is really telling Japan, it’s time for Japan to become a leader again,” Ghio said. “They are locking in decades and decades of pollution at a time when we really can’t afford it.”

Ghio’s group is hoping that international pressure — now and at the G7 summit in Japan later this year — will help stem Japan’s coal investment.

Last fall, OECD countries agreed to stop providing financing through their export banks (such as the Import-Export Bank of the United States and JBIC) for new coal-fired power plants around the world, but there was one major caveat: The role doesn’t apply if the plant is considered highly efficient, or the plant is in a very poor country where the investor believes there are no viable alternatives to coal power.

The Clean Coal Myth

Japan was one of the countries that resisted making a commitment to stop financing coal plants, largely, opponents say, because of industry pressures.

Japan, though, says that people need electricity, and they are going to get it somehow. Coal is cheap — but the most cheaply developed coal plants use more coal and accordingly spew out more pollution, than a level of technology known as ultra supercritical.

“Carbon-based energy needs to be as efficient as possible,” says Hiroyuki Hatada, a Washington, D.C.-based chief representative for the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, a Japanese state agency.

“Coal consumption is going to grow, mostly in non-OECD Asia,” Hatada told ThinkProgress. “If they are going to continue to grow their use of coal, regardless of how much we try to promote renewables, the only thing we can do is try to reduce the amount of CO2 that is coming from the use of coal.”

If Japan won’t finance coal plants, someone else will, Hatada said. “If we decide not to, they will simply choose cheaper coal power plants, without our assistance,” Hatada said.

It’s a fair point, but some say the premise is flawed. For one, Japan’s technology is no longer more efficient than what is being built elsewhere in the world, according to Ted Nace, the founder of CoalSwarm. (China has long been portrayed as ready to swoop in with cheaper, less-efficient power plants, if Japan backs off the international scene).

“What’s being built in China is as efficient as anything else in the world,” Nace told ThinkProgress.

“[The Japanese] sort of bought into this idea that their coal plants are so efficient,” Nace said. “But you can’t build efficient coal plants and solve the climate problem.”

Meanwhile, renewables are getting cheaper and cheaper. The cost of a solar power plant, for instance, has dramatically declined in just the past five years.

“They should be financing solar,” Nace said. In India, for instance, there has been huge investment in solar power, and places like Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, where Japan has coal projects planned, all have significant solar resources.

Domestically, Nace hopes Japan’s planned coal plants, some of which are in the pipeline for 2020 and later, can still be cancelled.

“In Japan, they do look a ways ahead,” Nace said. “There is still time for them to alter the course of with all this, definitely.”

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly said China will stop permitting new coal plants. The country announced it will stop permitting new coal mines and has made other signals that it is moving away from coal.