Could cracks be appearing for the first time in Japan’s commitment to coal fired power?

Greenpeace activists outside the Isogo coal power plant and the Minami-Yokohama gas power plant during the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) meeting in 2014.Greenpeace activists outside the Isogo coal power plant and the Minami-Yokohama gas power plant during the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) meeting in 2014.

The environment minister Masaharu Nakagawa has told a news conference in Tokyo that the export of coal-fired power should be controlled because of the threat of climate change caused by CO2 emissions.

“There is no doubt that the world is shifting to reducing CO2.  As the Ministry of the Environment, we want to think negatively [about exporting coal power plant to Asia],” he said.

"There is no doubt that coal-fired power generation is state-of-the-art technology, but the amount of carbon dioxide emissions is about twice that of natural gas, and the world is in the process of suppressing it.”

Japan is a major funder of so-called “clean coal” technology in Southeast Asia. Minister Nakagawa said that his department did not support this.

“The Environment Ministry is obliged to comply with the government’s overall judgement,” Mr Nakagawa said. “But we do not actively promote [the export of coal-fired power] as the Ministry of the Environment.”

Japan has been turning to fossil fuels since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and expects coal to provide a quarter of its electricity by 2030, throwing into doubt the country’s emission reductions as part of the Paris Agreement.  

Domestically, Japan plans to build as many as 40 new coal fired power plants. As much as 18 GW of coal is due to come on line between now and 2040, if all permits for new plants are approved. Some independent analysts believe coal could account for as much as 38 percent of electricity by 2030.  

The foreign minister Taro Kono has also raised questions about Japan’s commitment to coal. He was speaking after the One Planet summit in Paris, where he met former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg who warned the Japanese against relying on fossil fuels for their future energy needs.

Mr Kono said Japan could not abandon fossil fuels entirely.  But he acknowledged the potential for renewable energy in Japan, particularly given the plummeting prices and the rapid technological improvements around the world.  

“We have to fairly evaluate renewable energy,” he said.

Japan stands alone as an OECD country with its bullish promotion of coal-fired power. Internationally, it is ranked as the second biggest public financier of coal fired power plants overseas, pouring as much as 10 billion USD into coal projects through infrastructure and development funds.  

All of these projects undermine the stated goal of the Paris Agreement to keep average global temperature rise to well below 2C and strive for 1.5C.

The latest report looking at the biggest lenders for coal-fired power plants around the world shows Japanese banks Mizuho and MUFG  are among the top 10 of coal lenders.  

The growing international criticism of promoting coal-fired power has so far fallen on deaf ears in the Japanese government. Its official development agency, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), insists that funding and facilitating high-efficiency technology in infrastructure projects overseas is part of Japan’s international commitments to addressing climate change.  

But the environment minister has now publicly admitted that even the best of the high-efficiency, low-emission plants emit twice as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as gas-fired power.

The public statements from both ministers are a welcome break from the long-held government ideology that high-efficiency low-emission coal is good for the climate.  

It appears that pressure from civil society and world leaders is finally forcing a re-think in the Japanese government.

Marina Lou is legal council for Greenpeace East Asia and Asia Pacific.