Japan races to build new coal-burning power plants as many as 22 at 17 different sites in the next five years at a time when the world urgently requires to slash carbon dioxide emissions to fight surging global warming.
“Why coal, why now?” said Ms. Kanno, a homemaker in Yokosuka, which is the site for two of the coal-burning units that will be built just several hundred feet from her home. “It’s the worst possible thing they could build.”
The 22 power plants together would emit carbon dioxide annually equivalent to all the passenger cars sold each year in the United States. Just in contrast to the construction, Japan is trying to portray the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer as one of the greenest ever.
As the environmental groups typically focus their objections on nuclear power, the Yokosuka project has prompted unusual pushback in Japan. However, some residents are suing the Government over its approval of the new coal-burning plant, which the supporters hope will jump-start opposition to coal in Japan.
According to the plaintiffs, the Japanese Government has rubber-stamped the project without a proper environmental assessment. The complaint is noteworthy as the plant will not only degrade local air quality, but it will also pose a risk to communities by contributing to climate change.
The release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is the major driver of global warming as it traps the heat of the sun. Coal burning is one of the most significant single sources of carbon dioxide emissions and one of the dirtiest sources of electricity.
Japan is already facing severe effects of climate change. A 2018 heatwave killed more than 1,000 people could not have happened without climate change, as scientists have said. And because of this heat, the International Olympic Committee was compelled to move the Tokyo Olympics’ marathon events to a cooler city almost 700 miles north.
Japan has used the Olympics to emphasize its transition to a more climate-resilient economy with innovations like heat-reflecting roads. Organizers have said that renewable sources will be used for electricity required by the Games.
However, the ongoing coal investments threaten to undermine that message.
Under the Paris accord, the target of Japan to control its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2030 compared to 2013 levels has been criticized for being “highly insufficient” by climate groups.
“Japan touts a low-emissions Olympics, but in the very same year, it will start operating five new coal-fired power plants that will emit many times more carbon dioxide than anything the Olympics can offset,” said Kimiko Hirata, international director at the Kiko Network, a group that advocates climate action.
Apart from other advanced economies, Japan sets its policy. Britain, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, is set to phase out coal power by 2025 and France even earlier than that, by 2022. In the United States, also, utilities are fast retiring coal power, and there are no new plants actively under development.
To meet the demand of more than one-third of the total power generation, Japan relies on coal. Even when older coal plants will start retiring, eventually reducing overall dependence on coal, the country expects to meet its electricity needs of more than one-quarter from coal in 2030.
“Japan is an anomaly among developed economies,” said Yukari Takamura, an expert in climate policy at the Institute for Future Initiatives at the University of Tokyo. “The era of coal is ending, but for Japan, it’s proving very difficult to give up an energy source that it has relied on for so long.”
The consequence of the Fukushima nuclear disaster almost a decade ago presented another type of energy crisis that forced Japan to close its nuclear power program while also giving more reason to increase its reliance on coal. The research has shown that as soon as 2025, it could become more cost-effective for Japan to invest in renewable energy, such as wind or solar, than to run coal-powered plants. However, the Government believes in maintaining a diversified mix of energy sources and thus investing in fossil fuels.
About four-fifths of Japan’s electricity needs to be fulfilled by natural gas and oil, fossil fuels, while renewable sources of energy, led by hydropower, make up about 16 percent. The nuclear energy, which once provided up to one-third of Japan’s power generation, plummeted to 3 percent in 2017.
Alongside China and South Korea, The policy of the Japanese Government to finance coal power in developing nations has also come under scrutiny. The country is second only to China to invest in overseas coal plants.
A sizable Japanese contingent, activists in yellow “Pikachu” outfits, attended the United Nations climate talks late last year in Madrid and unfurled “No Coal” signs and chanted “Sayonara coal!”
Japan’s new environment minister, Shinjiro Koizumi, a charismatic son of a former prime minister, has been a target of the activists’ rage and who is also seen as a possible future candidate for prime minister himself. But Yoshiaki Harada, the predecessor of Mr. Koizumi, had declared that the Environment Ministry would not approve the construction of any more new large coal-fired power plants. However, the future of such declaration is uncertain as he will last less than a year as a minister.