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Editorial: Is Japan turning its back on world trend to phase out coal?

Japanese Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi has earned negative attention globally for failing to spell out a path for Japan's departure from coal-fired power generation in his speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 25) in Madrid on Dec. 11.

"Of course, I am aware of global criticism, including of our coal-related policies," Koizumi said in his speech. He went on to underscore Japan's achievement of cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions for five consecutive years, but the content of his speech was apparently far from sufficient. His address ended up winning Japan a second "Fossil of the Day" award at the same conference -- given from a nongovernmental organization to countries reluctant to address global warming.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on nations to end their addiction to coal. Japan's current situation, however, is a far cry from that goal.

Coal-fired power generation accounts for 33% of Japan's energy mix, with approximately 100 coal-fired thermal plants currently in operation and the construction of another 20 such plants planned.

In the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station disaster in 2011, all nuclear reactors in Japan were suspended, with the ratio of nuclear power generation plummeting from around 30% to a mere 3%. As an alternative energy source, utility companies boosted the ratio of coal-fired thermal power generation.

The Japanese government has been advancing efforts to export highly efficient coal-fired power plants to developing countries. While Koizumi had attempted to incorporate in his speech a plan to curb such exports, he ultimately failed to do so due to strong resistance from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and other bodies.

Phasing out coal is a global trend. Many countries, predominantly in Europe, have already declared that they will do away with their coal-fired thermal plants by 2030. However, Japan's future energy mix, as laid out by the government's Basic Energy Plan, is overly dependent on coal-fired thermal power generation.

Japan's greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal, pledged under the Paris Agreement due to come into effect in 2020, was set based on the Basic Energy Plan. The country's goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 26% from 2013 levels by 2030 not only looks lax in the eyes of the international community but also discourages domestic efforts to reduce emissions. If Japan is to keep up its coal-fired power production, it may not even be able to attain its self-set emissions reductions goal.

Tokyo is urged to review the Basic Energy Plan and demonstrate its commitment to seriously addressing global warming. While the basic plan sets Japan's dependency on nuclear power at 20-22% in 2030, it only deflects the public's eyes from the difficulties Japan has been facing in restarting nuclear reactors. It is about time for Japan to turn to renewable energy.

In the 1990s, Japan played a leading role in the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, which heralded the world's ongoing efforts against global warming. The Paris Agreement has taken over the ideals of the Kyoto accord.

Japan must not settle for the status quo, but instead opt for a path in which it can strive to achieve the goal of phasing out of coal-fired power. That is the minimum responsibility that an advanced country ought to fulfill.

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