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Why the world’s third-largest economy is still betting on coal

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Japan is pushing ahead with a fuel source that’s exacerbating climate change.

Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, is leaning into coal power, a striking move at a time when the climate crisis is accelerating and most of its economic peers are cutting back on the high-polluting energy source.

The prospect of more coal has been looming for years: In 2018, Japan proposed adding 36 new coal plants to its fleet. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Japan has revised that plan but is still on track to add a total of 22 coal-fired power plants at 17 sites in the next five years. Some 15 of these plants are already under construction.

If all 22 plants were to come to fruition, Japan will install enough new coal power capacity to emit an additional 74.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, more than the total emissions of countries like Norway and Sweden.

This coal buildout would make Japan, the world’s fifth-largest greenhouse gas emitter, the only G7 country building more coal power plants domestically and the largest G7 financier of coal generation in other countries.

Under the Paris climate agreement, Japan committed to cutting its emissions 26 percent below 2013 levels by 2030, target activists already considered to be weak. Last year, Japan’s cabinet also adopted an emissions reduction strategy that would make the country carbon neutral after 2050. But if the 22 new coal plants get up and running, Japan could blow past its 2030 target and move further off track from its 2050 target.

“Coal is the biggest source of Japan’s CO2 emissions,” said Kimiko Hirata, international director of the Kiko Network, a Japanese environmental advocacy group. “Building new coal is a clear contradiction to the Paris agreement that Japan is aligned with.”

It’s also awkward for organizers of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, who are claiming to “build the foundation of decarbonization” with extensive renewable energy, hydrogen-powered vehicles, and carbon offsets.

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