Japan Unswayed by Increased Pressure to Disavow Coal Support

  • Government sees emissions cuts from more efficient coal plants
  • Carbon capture and storage development needed, METI says

Japan, faced with increasing calls from environmentalists to phase out coal, is standing by its support of the fossil fuel, saying it will help developing countries adopt the best available technologies for coal-fired power plants.

Pressure to rein in carbon dioxide emissions is intensifying, especially after the Paris Agreement, a global deal reached in December to tackle climate change. Environmentalists have criticized Japan for being one of the biggest providers of coal financing among Group of Seven nations and for being a laggard in switching to cleaner energy sources.

In response, Japan says it’s helping to develop more efficient coal-fired plants that can cut carbon dioxide emissions. The Asian nation’s financing of coal-fired projects is also helping to improve energy security in countries that still rely on the cheap fuel, officials say.

“It is not realistic to quit coal entirely,” Takafumi Kakudo, director of the clean coal division at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, said in an interview. “Environmental aspects alone can’t dictate the way countries set their energy policies.’’

Asian countries such as India and Indonesia are planning to add more coal capacity to meet growing power demand. Japanese companies such as Toshiba Corp. have plans to supply equipment to such coal-fired plants, while the state-owned Japan Bank for International Cooperation has provided loans for projects abroad.

Coal Technologies

“We want to make our contribution so these countries can reduce emissions,” Kakudo said, adding that Japan is also ready to provide support for gas-fired power projects.

The government has been promoting exports of technologies for coal- and gas-fired power. In a set of infrastructure export strategies adopted in May, the government said it will push for energy-related infrastructure such as high-efficiency thermal power plants and equipment to remove air pollutants.

Japanese companies are counting on demand for cheap electricity in developing countries.

“There is big demand for power in emerging economies and Africa where industries have yet to emerge,” Takio Nishizuma, a senior executive vice president at Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Ltd., said at a seminar in Tokyo earlier this month. Mitsubishi Hitachi Power is a supplier of equipment to coal-power plants.

Japan plans to continue to rely on coal-fired power plants at home, too. The country has plans for 48 projects totaling about 23 gigawatts in various stages of development, according to Kyoto-based environmental group Kiko Network.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, have been stepping up pressure on Japan to scale back on coal financing.

Japan’s public financing of coal power plants and mining is larger than any other member of Group of Seven industrial nations, according to a report released last month by a collection of environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Financing Pressure

The Asian nation placed last among G-7 members in terms of efforts being made to phase out coal-power generation, according to a “coal scorecard” report from E3G, a non-profit group promoting a low-carbon economy.

In November, members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development agreed to scale back public financing for coal-fired stations in order to rein in emissions, with member countries agreeing to provide subsidies only for coal-fired plants with so-called ultra-supercritical technology.

Even with advances in technology, coal-fired plants still emit more carbon dioxide than gas-fired stations. Development of carbon capture and storage is needed to drastically reduce emissions, METI’s Kakudo said.

“Japan needs to recognize it has a problem,” Chris Littlecott, program leader for fossil fuel transition and CCS at E3G, said at a recent seminar on coal in Tokyo. “Japan is going to be under pressure.”

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