Japan’s G7 Coal Shame

cool japan or coal japan

At the end of May, the eyes of the world will turn to Japan as it hosts the G7.

One would expect Japan to use this opportunity to step up as a leader on climate after the global agreement in Paris. Instead, barring a drastic change in government policy, the G7 will be a showcase in the many ways Japan is stagnating while the rest of the world moves forward on energy, climate and the economy.

Even as the United States, Europe and China are burning less coal, imports are up in Japan, and an additional 23,000 MW of new capacity is proposed or under construction. Not content to limit its backward position to its own borders, Japan is also the world’s number one financier of overseas coal, subsidizing US$20 billion abroad between 2007 and 2014. Next up is the $4 billion Batang coal plant in Indonesia, a notorious project plagued by human rights violations, which is under consideration at the Japan Bank  for International Cooperation.

Conversely, the United States is rapidly reducing its dependence on coal. One third of the coal fleet has announced retirement since 2010. Two realities underpin this rapid shift away from coal. First, coal kills. Nothing can make a coal plant clean, and air pollution from coal plants led to an estimated 13,000 deaths in the United States in 2010. Second, coal is a bad investment. We see it in projects like Mississippi’s Kemper plant and its ballooning costs, which currently sit at $6.5 billion. We also see it in the many coal companies, most recently Peabody, that have declared bankruptcy. Meanwhile, global clean energy investments outpace coal and gas two to one.

The story is the same in Europe, where many countries are not only reducing coal use, but have announced plans to phase it out all together, including the United Kingdom, Austria and Finland. The Nordic countries, Netherlands, United Kingdom, France and Germany also joined the United States in pledging to end financing for overseas coal except in rare circumstances, leading to new OECD restrictions on export-credit agency finance for coal, which Japan grudgingly agreed to. Perhaps most notable, however, is Norway, where parliament voted to divest the country’s $900 billion pension fund, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, from coal.

Even China, where analysts once predicted a never ending, insatiable demand for coal, is now reducing its coal consumption. Coal plants now operate at less than 50%. The government announced the closure of over 1,000 mines a suspension of new coal plant approvals. China also agreed to limit financial support for high carbon projects overseas along the lines of President Obama’s ban on support for coal projects with public money except in the world’s poorest countries when no alternative exists.

It is embarrassing that Japan will host the G7 when its energy policies are so clearly behind the times. While other countries are boosting public health and their economies by investing in cutting edge renewable energy technology and simultaneously ramping down coal, Japan continues to prop up a dying industry. Last year in Paris, the world’s leaders added their voices the call to fight climate disruption. If Japan wants to be a global leader, it must show it is ready to turn those words into action.

Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club