It is one unintended consequence of the Fukushima nuclear disaster almost a decade ago, which forced Japan to all but close its nuclear power program. Japan now plans to build as many as 22 new coal-burning power plants at 17 different sites in the next five years, just at a time when environmental groups say the world needs to slash carbon dioxide emissions to fight global warming.
"Why coal, why now?" said Satsuki Kanno, whose apartment overlooks Tokyo Bay in the city of Yokosuka, the site for two of the coal-burning units that will be built just several hundred feet from her home. "It's the worst possible thing they could build."
The construction stands in contrast with Japan's effort to portray this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo as one of the greenest ever.
The Yokosuka project has prompted unusual push-back in Japan, where environmental groups more typically focus their objections on nuclear power. Some residents are suing the government over its approval of the new coal-burning plant in what supporters hope will jump-start opposition to coal across Japan.
The Japanese government, the plaintiffs say, rubber-stamped the project without a proper environmental assessment. The complaint is noteworthy because it argues that the plant will not only degrade local air quality but will also endanger communities by contributing to climate change.
Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere is the major driver of global warming, because it traps the sun's heat. Coal burning is one of the biggest single sources of carbon dioxide emissions, scientists say.
Japan is already experiencing severe effects from climate change. Scientists have said that a heat wave in 2018 that killed more than 1,000 people could not have happened without climate change. Because of heat concerns, the International Olympic Committee was compelled to move the Tokyo Olympics' marathon events to Sapporo, a cooler city about 700 miles north.
Japan's policy sets it apart from other developed economies. Britain, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, is set to phase out coal power by 2025, and France has said it will shut down its coal power plants even earlier, by 2022. In the U.S., utilities are rapidly retiring coal power and no new plants are actively under development.
But Japan relies on coal for more than a third of its power-generation needs. And while older coal plants will start retiring, eventually reducing overall coal dependency, the country still expects to meet more than a quarter of its electricity needs from coal in 2030.
"Japan is an anomaly among developed economies," said Yukari Takamura, an expert in climate policy at the Institute for Future Initiatives at the University of Tokyo. "The era of coal is ending, but for Japan, it's proving very difficult to give up an energy source that it has relied on for so long."
Japan's appetite for coal doesn't solely come down to Fukushima. Coal consumption has been rising for decades, as the energy-poor country, which is reliant on imports for the bulk of its energy needs, raced to wean itself from foreign oil after the oil shocks of the 1970s.
Together with natural gas and oil, fossil fuels account for about four-fifths of Japan's electricity needs, while renewable sources of energy, led by hydropower, make up about 16%. Reliance on nuclear energy, which once provided up to a third of Japan's power generation, plummeted to 3% in 2017.
The Japanese government's policy of financing coal power in developing nations, alongside China and South Korea, has also come under scrutiny. The country is second only to China in the financing of coal plants overseas.
At the United Nations climate talks late last year in Madrid, attended by a sizable Japanese contingent, activists in yellow Pikachu outfits unfurled "No Coal" signs and chanted "Sayonara coal!"
A target of the activists' wrath has been Japan's new environment minister, Shinjiro Koizumi, a charismatic son of a former prime minister who is seen as a possible future candidate for prime minister himself. But Koizumi has fallen short of his predecessor, Yoshiaki Harada, who had declared that the Environment Ministry would not approve the construction of any more new large coal-fired power plants, but lasted less than a year as minister.
The Yokosuka project has special significance for Koizumi, who hails from the port city, an industrial hub and the site of an American naval base. The coal units are planned at the site of an oil-powered power station, operated by Tokyo Electric Power, that shuttered in 2009, to the relief of local residents.
But that shutdown proved to be short-lived.
Just two years later, the Fukushima disaster struck, when an earthquake and tsunami badly damaged a seaside nuclear facility also owned by Tokyo Electric. The resulting meltdown sent the utility racing to start up two of the eight Yokosuka oil-powered units as an emergency measure. They were finally shut down only in 2017.
What Tokyo Electric proposed next -- the two new coal-powered units -- has left many in the community bewildered. To make matters worse, Tokyo Electric declared that the units did not need a full environmental review, because they were being built on the same site as the oil-burning facilities.
The central government agreed. The residents' lawsuit challenges that decision.
Some new coal projects have faced hiccups. Last year, a consortium of energy companies canceled plans for two coal-burning plants, saying they were no longer economical. Meanwhile, Japan has said it will invest in carbon capture and storage technology to clean up emissions from coal generation, but that technology is not yet commercially available.
Coal's fate in Japan may reside with the country's Ministry of Trade, which pulls considerable weight in Tokyo's halls of power. In a response to questions about the coal-plant construction, the ministry said it had issued guidance to the nation's operators to wind down their least-efficient coal plants and to aim for carbon-emissions reductions overall. But the decision on whether to go ahead with plans rested with the operators, it said.
"The most responsible policy," the ministry said, "is to forge a concrete path that allows for both energy security, and a battle against climate change."
Business on 02/04/2020