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News Navigator: What's the problem with coal-fired thermal power generation?

The turbine of the No. 2 generator at the coal-fired Taketoyo thermal power station, having been offline for a long time, is pictured in this file photo taken in the Aichi Prefecture town of Taketoyo, on May 25, 2011. (Mainichi)

Environment Minister Koichi Yamamoto on Aug. 1 put the brakes on construction plans for Chubu Electric Power Co.'s coal-fired Taketoyo thermal power plant, marking the second time an environment minister has done so. The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about the decision.

Question: Why did the environment minister put a stop to the plans?

Answer: Thermal power stations that use coal emit massive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is a major greenhouse gas that traps heat on the Earth's surface and is believed to contribute to global warming. This is the second time an environment minister has blocked the plant's construction plans, and for all practical purposes, amounts to a "no-go."

Q: Are there a lot of plans to build coal-fired power plants nationwide?

A: There are plans to construct at least 40 coal-fired power generators in Japan. A huge quantity of CO2 would be emitted into the atmosphere if these generators were to go into operation, which the environment minister has determined would prevent Japan from meeting its emission reduction targets that it set under the Paris Agreement. This is why he is seeking a review of construction plans. Environmental NGOs are also saying that plans to build more coal-fired power generators are an impediment to the successful implementation of measures to counter global warming.

Q: Why are power companies trying to build coal-fired thermal power plants?

A: Following the outbreak of the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant crisis in 2011, safety measures for building and operating nuclear reactors have been beefed up, making it difficult for the construction of nuclear reactors to be given the go-ahead. In contrast, coal is relatively cheap, even compared to other fossil fuels, so coal-fired power plants can generate power at low cost.

Power companies argue that the newest coal-fired thermal generators have high power-generation efficiency, and therefore pose no problems to the environment, but such generators still emit some level of CO2 into the atmosphere. Environment Minister Yamamoto is calling on power companies to reconsider their plans, saying that from the perspective of global warming countermeasures, coal-fired power plants carry extremely high risks.

Q: What's the situation like in other countries?

A: In Europe, where there is great interest in environmental issues and conservation, and even in China, which emits the greatest volume of greenhouse gases in the world, steps are being made to curb coal-fired power generation. The U.K. and France, among other countries, have plans to ban coal-fired power altogether. The world is seeing a trend toward phasing out coal use, with financial institutions abroad divesting from coal-related industries.

There are concerns that Japan, which was a leader in bringing countries together to sign the Paris Agreement's predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, will be left behind the current trends. Yamamoto is calling on a shift toward phasing coal out in Japan as well, lamenting that the world currently views Japan as a country that is tolerant of coal use. (Answers by Kazuhiro Igarashi, Science & Environment News Department)

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