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Al Gore faults Japan for subsidizing coal

Former vice president of US presses Japan to step up in climate fight

Al Gore, who was vice president of the U.S. for much of the 1990s, speaks to The Nikkei in Tokyo on Nov. 2.

TOKYO -- Al Gore says China is taking center stage not only in economic terms but also in the climate debate as the U.S. and Japan fail to exercise strong leadership.

"President Xi Jinping has made a very bold commitment to position China as the world's leader in helping to solve the climate crisis," the U.S. vice president under Bill Clinton told The Nikkei.

China is by far the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and has put segments of its own population under clouds of suffocating air pollution. But the country is now working on reducing emissions and seizing the opportunity to lead the world in making solar panels, wind mills, electric cars and other efficient technologies.

"This challenge from China should be assessed carefully by both Japan and the U.S.," Gore said. With Washington turning its back on global climate efforts, Gore said, "I hope Japan could challenge China as a leader in creating a bright future for the world."

Gore was in Tokyo recently to promote his movie, "An Inconvenient Sequel," a follow-up to the 2006 award-winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." Scientists believe greenhouse gas emissions are closely tied to global warming and the increases in extreme weather events around the world.

Meanwhile, U.N. member countries are meeting in Bonn, Germany, to discuss one of the key unsettled elements in the 2015 Paris climate accord -- how nations' earlier pledges should be reviewed and ratcheted up in subsequent years.

According to a report released on Monday, carbon emissions are projected to increase 2% this year, having stayed flat during the past three years -- a setback to global efforts to cap greenhouse gas emissions.  

Gore noted that India is also moving aggressively toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions by offering to close coal mines, stopping the construction of some coal power plants and expanding plans for solar farms.

Such a show of leadership by the two developing nations contrasts with the Washington's withdrawal from the Paris accord and Tokyo's refusal to offer more ambitious emission reduction targets. No country followed the U.S.'s exit from the accord, but the U.S. departure has created a vacuum, one that China is plugging. 

Last month, Xi predicted, "It will be an era that sees China moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind." China is taking "the driver's seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change," Xi added.

For Gore, one of the main issues he has with Japan is its export of coal power technology to developing countries.

"Japan should consider reassessing its role as the No. 1 contributor of subsidies to the building of many new dirty coal plants in developing countries," he said.

Japan has been exporting coal plants to developing countries, believing coal will remain a key energy source for many developing countries and that emissions reductions can be achieved by making coal power cleaner.

Gore dismissed the argument, saying that even Japan's most cutting edge 'integrated coal gasification combined cycle' technology makes power plants only 5% more efficient and that they will "still treat the atmosphere as an open sewer and make the climate crisis worse."

Instead of investing in coal, which Gore calls "polluting technologies of the past," the activist suggested that Japan focus on technological innovations in solar photovoltaics, wind power, batteries and electric cars. Innovations, Gore said, are helping to turn the tide of global warming, but "we are not yet winning [the battle] fast enough."

Despite calling for more technological innovations, Gore stressed politics still matters a great deal in the global climate fight.

Whether greenhouse gas emissions can be controlled will depend "not only on continued advances in technology," Gore said, "but also on policy innovations -- to stop the subsidies of carbon-based fuels [and] to encourage speedier adoptions of the new technologies."

Nikkei staff writer Mitsuru Obe contributed to this story.

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