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Japan's climate change policies tripping over coal-burning plant export strategy

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change holds a meeting about the global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24), in Katowice, southern Poland, on Dec. 4, 2018. (Mainichi/Kazuhiro Igarashi)

KATOWICE, Poland/BRUSSELS -- At the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) that kicked off in Kotowice, southern Poland on Dec. 2, the major point of contention is the rule book for the Paris Agreement, which will decide the world's climate change policies from 2020 forward.

But with roughly one year before the international countermeasures are to be put into effect, a difference of opinion about the domestic policies of participating nations as well as cooperation between governments has begun to stand out. Japan has yet to decide on its strategy up to 2050 to reduce effects on the climate, and is falling behind other developed nations.

The Japanese government has put forward a goal to "reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050," but has failed to decide on a benchmark year to which comparisons would be made. A concrete vision has also yet to be presented, and among the Group of Seven major industrialized nations, Japan and Italy are the only two to have not submitted long term climate change-combating plans. With the Group of 20 heads of state meeting planned to be held in Osaka, Japan, in 2019, an official related to the Japanese government worried, "If things continue like this, the prime minister could be shamed by the international community."

In an attempt to address the issue, the government established the Long-Term Strategy under the Paris Agreement as Growth Strategy council, headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, this August. Along with academic and other experts in the field, Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) Chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi and other members of Japan's business sector were also invited to join in deliberations to hammer out a plan.

In tandem with the discussions on long-term strategies, Keidanren also announced that "measures on a worldwide scale are needed to solve the issue of global warming," emphasizing the business group's contributions including cutting emissions in their international ventures. However, looking at the reduction proposals from each industry, the electric power sector lists the export of high-efficiency coal-burning thermal power stations, which have a high level of carbon dioxide emissions -- a powerful greenhouse gas, to other countries. This is also specified in the government's infrastructure export strategy, but as it stands in opposition with the Paris Agreement's long-term goal of "virtually zero" greenhouse gas emissions, it has been inundated by international criticism.

"While the uphill battle for infrastructure exports is whispered about, wanting to keep (coal-fired thermal power stations) on the export menu is deeply rooted in the business community and at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Infrastructure," disclosed an official from the Ministry of Environment.

Presiding over anti-global warming measures, the Environment Ministry is against building new coal-burning plants. "They will probably find some way to keep the efficient coal-fired power stations (in the long-term growth strategy being discussed at the council)," they said, pessimistically.

The points up for debate at the premier's council will be decided by the end of this year at the earliest, but it seems as though ambitious plans that will be able to make large-scale reductions to emissions are still far away.

Institute for Global Environmental Strategies Research Leader Kentaro Tamura pointed out, "Japan is currently making light of scientific data (on climate change), and the government's initiative to show the course of global warming has weakened." Tamura said that the key to creating ambitious, long-term strategies to combat climate change depended on whether or not the government could send out such a political message or not.

"The government as a whole is favoring the economy," he said. "That is why it is so hard for Japan to take a definite international lead in global warming countermeasures."

(Japanese original by Kazuhiro Igarashi and Ai Oba, Science & Environment News Department, and Kosuke Hatta, Brussels Bureau)

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