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Pressure on Japan to combat climate crisis by ending outsized dependence on coal power

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg, of Sweden, addresses the Climate Action Summit in the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

On the morning of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York on Sept. 23, protests against the Japanese government for its investments in coal-fired power plants overseas took place. Susanne Wong, a senior campaigner for Oil Change International, the U.S.-based NGO that organized the protest, argued that pressure on the Japanese government would grow as the international community's attention turned increasingly to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. She also said that Japan's leadership was needed to abolish coal worldwide.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on nations to stop construction of new coal-fired power plants by 2020. Japan, along with Australia, has been the target of international criticism for its dependence on coal-generated power. Although newly appointed Japanese Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi attended the summit, neither Japan nor Australia took the opportunity to speak.

The Japanese government has not changed its policy on coal use, and the construction of coal-fired plants and the expansion of existing ones are moving forward across the country. The government's Basic Energy Plan, revised last year, has set the proportion of coal-fired power in fiscal 2030 at 26%, more than the 22-24% for renewable energy. In its long-term global-warming countermeasures, too, the government was unable to hammer out concrete steps toward the complete elimination of coal-generated power, having faced strong opposition from industry circles.

In its long-term plan, the Japanese government decided on an 80% decrease of greenhouse gases by 2050, but only goes as far as to aim for a "carbon-free society" with net-zero carbon emissions "as soon as possible in the latter half of this century." Japan had said that it would take the lead and set an example for the world to become carbon free. In the meantime, however, 77 nations at the Climate Summit announced that they would bring their carbon emissions down to zero by 2050 -- earlier than Japan's long-term plan.

Japan's goal for emissions by the year 2030 is a 26% reduction compared to 2013 levels (a 25.4% reduction compared to 2005 levels), but the government must resubmit its goals to the U.N. by next year. The Japanese government is not obliged to raise its reduction goals, and there are no signs that will happen. But unless the government comes up with some stronger countermeasures, considering its dependence on coal as well, Japan's image and its influence on the international community will undoubtedly plummet.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says that average temperatures for 2015-2019 are expected to be the highest on record. The heat waves this summer in Europe and other weather-related incidents have been particularly prominent. In Japan, global warming has been pointed out as the culprit behind the torrential rains that hit the western part of the country and the record-breaking heat last year. To reduce serious damage from natural disasters that are expected going forward, fundamental countermeasures are essential.

"Japan's goals are seen as 'significantly insufficient' by bodies overseas, and if Japan remains dependent on coal, even accomplishing a 26% reduction compared to 2013 levels may be unrealistic," says Masako Konishi, deputy director of conservation at World Wide Fund for Nature Japan. "The classic way to counter this situation would be carbon pricing, in which taxes would be imposed based on the amount of carbon emissions. The implementation of such a system would naturally weed out the use of coal-generated power."


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