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Japan falling behind peers on shift away from coal

Shuttered nuclear plants remain a major obstacle to Tokyo's emissions target

International leaders pose for a photo at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, in November 2017.   © AP

TOKYO -- Despite a growing international push to abandon coal for cleaner energy sources, Japan has been relying more and more on the fuel amid lagging efforts to bring its nuclear reactors back online.

"There are many plans for new coal-powered facilities in Japan," Japanese Environment Minister Masaharu Nakagawa told reporters on Thursday. "If they are all built, it would be difficult for us to meet our emissions reduction goals."

The country aims to cut emissions by 26% between fiscal 2013 and fiscal 2030. But coal-fired power plants produce twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas plants. Tokyo will have a difficult time meeting its goal should the 40 or so current proposals for new coal-fired facilities go through.

"We'll be left behind by the global trend away from coal," a ministry official said. Not least because the ministry can do little to stop energy companies from building new coal-fired plants.

At the Thursday press briefing, Nakagawa expressed concern over plans to add a second unit at Chugoku Electric Power's Misumi coal-fired power plant. But while the minister is allowed to give official feedback on proposals, he has no power to actually stop them. Chugoku Electric plans to go through with what it considers a necessary expansion.

The Environment Ministry had previously offered its nonbinding opinion on five proposals for coal-fired plants, saying the projects were unacceptable -- a harder line than it took with the more recent Misumi proposal. Only one of the five ended up being scrapped. The ministry now consults with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry before issuing the minister's opinion, turning it into a mere formality.

Seeking alternatives

Other countries are working much faster on shedding their reliance on coal. Roughly 20 nations and regions joined the "Powering Past Coal" movement in November, led by the U.K. and Canada. The U.K. plans to close all coal-fired power plants by 2025, and output at such facilities fell by two-thirds between 2012 and 2016. France is looking to stop burning coal for power by 2021, while Mexico and Italy have also set their own targets.

A coal-burning power plant on the outskirts of Zhengzhou, China, in August 2010.   © AP

Global demand for coal fell for a second year in 2016, dropping 1.9%, according to the International Energy Agency. Cheap shale gas is quickly taking over despite U.S. President Donald Trump's pledge to revive the coal industry. Even China, which currently relies on coal for 70% of its energy needs, is looking for greener power sources to combat its serious pollution problem.

Japan's coal consumption is expected to fall, but how fast depends on how many nuclear reactors it can get back online. All of the country's reactors were shut down after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Only five have since restarted. The government aims to boost nuclear power to 20-22% of Japan's energy mix by 2030. Due to stalled safety checks and local pushback, the current figure stands at just 2%.

Branching out

Renewable energy is still too expensive and depends too heavily on weather conditions to be considered a viable alternative. Japan now relies on fossil fuels, much of which are imported, for more than 80% of its electricity -- over 40% from natural gas, over 30% from coal and roughly 10% from petroleum. A spike in prices could both erode Japan's national wealth and lead to higher prices for consumers.

At a meeting hosted by METI in December, experts pointed out that global carbon dioxide emissions would fall by 1.2 billion tons if countries like China, India and the U.S. adopt Japan's most-efficient coal plants. This is roughly equivalent to Japan's total annual emissions.

"We will have more of an impact abroad than trying to reduce emissions in Japan, which only accounts for about 3% of the world's total," a METI official said.

But the international community is growing critical that Japan is looking to export its coal-fired plants as part of its growth strategy. Nongovernmental bodies and other actors slammed Japan for exporting "dirty" technology at a United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, in November.

The energy debate hinges not only on environmental impacts, but also on economic considerations and ensuring a stable supply of power. Still, with investors focusing more on environmental, social and governance factors on the stock market, companies are also being pushed to take action on climate change. Japan is caught between international pressure to abandon coal and the challenges of providing a stable supply of power without most of its nuclear reactors.

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