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Climate Change

Coal holdout Japan faces pressure as G-7 rallies around energy goal

U.S. and Europe look to go coal-free by end of the 2030s.

Coal is a significant part of Japan's energy mix, despite being a major source of carbon dioxide emissions.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan is facing increasing pressure from its Group of Seven peers as the last country refusing to give up coal as the group prepares to promise coal-free power grids by the end of the 2030s.

Ahead of the upcoming environment, climate and energy ministers meeting, current G-7 president Germany reached out to other members on potentially setting a target year of 2030 for going coal-free. All members but Japan have expressed their support, though the U.S. wants the 2030s as the deadline. 

The meeting will be held in Berlin from Wednesday to Friday. The ministers' draft joint statement now includes a pledge for steady progress on goals set by the Glasgow Climate Pact, which was adopted at the COP26 climate conference in November and calls for accelerating efforts toward a phase-down of so-called unabated coal power.

The draft statement also includes a goal to decarbonize the power sector by 2035, in line with a campaign promise by U.S. President Joe Biden.

But Japan does not want any commitments to quit coal in the document -- largely because the country has fallen behind on adopting carbon-free energy sources.

Few of Japan's nuclear reactors have returned online since the March 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, with the country instead building new coal-fired power plants to fill the gap. Renewables have also been slower to catch on here than in Europe.

Japan sees coal making up 19% of its energy mix in fiscal 2030. Meanwhile, France already generates around 70% of its electricity from the atom, while Germany generates 40% or so from renewables.

Japan is vehemently against Berlin's proposal. "Germany itself has been relying more on coal recently," Environment Minister Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi has said.

Fossil fuel development has picked back up as Russia's war in Ukraine drives up energy prices worldwide. But the U.S. and Europe see this as only temporary and still plan to transition away from coal in the medium to long term.

Western countries are pushing for a G-7-wide commitment on coal in part to turn up the heat on Beijing. China, the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, accounts for half of global coal consumption and is crucial to any efforts to transition away from the fuel.

There is recent precedent for this tactic. At last June's G-7 summit in the U.K., then-Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged to end support for unabated coal power projects overseas. China announced a similar commitment not long afterward.

A united front is important in pressuring Beijing to move away from coal, a U.S. government source said.

As this year's president of the G-7, Germany looks to establish a broader "climate club" of countries with shared emissions reduction targets in areas such as construction and transportation. Berlin envisions expanding this concept beyond G-7 members to South Korea and emerging countries.

Behind this idea is the European Commission's planned Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism -- a border tax imposed on imports from nations whose climate policies do not make the grade.

A robust climate club would level the playing field so that European products, which are subject to strict environmental regulations, will not be at a disadvantage against goods made in countries with looser regimes.

The Western countries pressuring Japan are not necessarily all on the same page. Emerging nations have been petitioning for technological and financial assistance to cope with the economic shock of reducing emissions. But the U.S. is not in a position to pledge sufficient aid, because Republicans and some Democrats will block such funding.

The United Nations warns of escalating harm from severe weather if the international community cannot cut greenhouse gases. Because outcomes from the G-7 influence the direction the rest of the world will take, Japan finds itself presented with a difficult choice.

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