Most of the world is turning its back on burning coal to produce electricity, which is not surprising considering its high level of greenhouse gases and high cost. But Japan is betting that coal is a cheap and reliable source of energy for the future.
The country has built at least eight new coal plants in the last two years totaling 1.07 GW and has planned 36 more in the next decade, the largest planned coal power expansion in any developed country, not including China and India. But that’s what’s most problematic.
Last month, the government took a key step in a questionable direction by launching a national energy plan that will make coal provide 26% of electricity in 2030 and abandon a previous goal of reducing the share of coal to 10%.
The decision to push further on coal is partly the result of the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which interrupted public support for atomic energy. This also reflects the government’s failure to encourage investment in renewable energy, environmental NGOs have said.
However, this decision has implications for air pollution and Japan’s ability to deliver on its promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which represent 4% of the total global coal capacity. If all planned coal plants are built, it will be “difficult for us to reach our emission reduction goals,” said Environment Minister Masaharu Nakagawa earlier this year.
Not long ago, coal was about to disappear in Japan. Coal plants accounted for 25% of Japan’s electricity in 2010 and the government’s plan was to reduce that percentage by more than half in 20 years. Nuclear power was going to take over, with its share going from 29% in 2010 to 50% by 2030.
Nevertheless, the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 led to a reassessment. Japan’s 54 reactors were closed pending compliance with the new safety regulations. Only seven have restarted. The power companies have turned to liquefied natural gas and coal, which provided 31% of the country’s electricity in 2014.
The new energy plan would consolidate the central role of coal. It would require the restart of nuclear power plants and increase its participation in the generation of electricity between 20% and 22% by 2030. This means fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) would provide up to 56% of the country’s energy.
That dependence on coal will make it difficult for Japan to fulfill its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2030 and by 80% by 2050, according to the country’s climate pledge. Those cuts will be even harder to achieve if nuclear power plants do not restart.
Countries committed in the Paris Agreement to cut their emissions so to limit the temperature increase to 2ºC or ideally 1.5ºC. Nevertheless, based on the climate pledges presented so far, the world is set to face global warming of at least 3ºC. More ambitious commitments are expected this year ahead of the COP26 climate summit.