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Japan builds coal plants abroad that wouldn’t be allowed at home: Report

A group of activists protest urge Japan to stop financing coal projects overseas during the UN 2018 climate talks in Katowice, Poland, Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

  • Japan is investing heavily in building coal-fired power plants overseas that would fall short of its own domestic emissions standards, according to a Greenpeace report.
  • Pollution from these plants, in places such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh, could potentially lead to 410,000 premature deaths over the 30-year lifetime of the plants.
  • Japan is the only country in the G7 group of wealthiest nations still actively building coal-fired plants domestically and overseas, which threatens international efforts to reduce carbon emissions and stall global warning.
  • Activists say by building on its own renewable energy potential, Japan can set a positive example for the countries in which it’s investing in energy infrastructure.

JAKARTA — Japan is exporting pollution and endangering public health overseas by funding coal-fired power plants that wouldn’t meet the strict emissions standards it imposes at home, a new report says.

Emissions from the plants being financed by Japanese public institutions could lead to 410,000 premature deaths over a 30-year period, according to the report published Aug. 20 by Greenpeace. That’s because the countries in which they’re located, including India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh, typically have less stringent emissions controls than in Japan.

In some cases, the report says, the Japanese-funded plants could emit up to 13 times more nitrogen oxides, 33 times more sulfur dioxide and 40 times more dust pollution than coal-fired plants in Japan.

Japan is the only country in the G7 group of wealthiest nations still actively building coal-fired plants domestically and overseas, according to Greenpeace. Exacerbating this “pollution export” is the fact that many of the countries hosting these overseas plants already struggle with poor air quality from other causes, including forest fires, vehicle emissions, and burning of fuelwood.

“Japanese investments in coal power are making it even harder for these countries to reduce air pollution and meet public health standards,” the report says.

Activists protesting the construction of a Japanese-funded coal power plant in Java wear ghost costumes as they demonstrate outside the Japanese Embassy in Jakarta. Image by Safir Makki/Greenpeace.

‘Not good enough’

By continuing to fund coal projects overseas with poor emission standards, Japan has broken its own promises of exporting quality infrastructure, said Hanna Hakko, Greenpeace Japan senior energy campaigner.

The policy is also at odds with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s global call to “join Japan and act now to save our planet” by reducing the use of fossil fuels, as well as Japan’s past environmental leadership as the host of the landmark 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which committed nearly 200 nations to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

“Japan should honor its trading partners and citizens of those countries by promoting energy technologies that stop hurting people’s health and the environment,” Hakko said.

Tata Mustasya, Greenpeace Southeast Asia regional climate and energy campaign coordinator, said Japan’s double standard on emissions standards was unacceptable.

“If it’s not good enough for Japan, it’s not good enough for Indonesia,” he said.

Indonesia could potentially account for up to 72,000 premature deaths as a result of exposure to the pollution from the Japanese-funded coal-fired power plants there over the 30-year lifetime of the plants, the Greenpeace report estimates. It also warns of up to 160,000 premature deaths in India, 36,000 in Vietnam, and 14,000 in Bangladesh.

Japan has faced criticism for its involvement in Indonesia’s coal industry. Here, a street theater performance is held in front of the Japanese Embassy in Jakarta to protest Japanese financial institutions’ support of a coal-fired power plant in Java. Image by Jurnasyanto Sukarno/Greenpeace.

More money in coal

As a growing number of governments around the world, including Indonesia, push to phase out coal in favor of cleaner energy sources, Japanese banks, insurance companies and trading houses have begun scaling back their investments in coal projects.

But the Japanese government continues to pour money into coal plants overseas through its public finance agencies: $16.7 billion between January 2013 and May 2019, according to Greenpeace.

As a result, Japan is the second-biggest public investor in overseas coal plant projects among the G20 countries, behind only China.

In Indonesia, Japan has underwritten nearly 3,000 megawatts of coal power plants in the past eight years, and China nearly 1,000 megawatts, according to an analysis by the local NGO Association of Ecological Action and People’s Emancipation (PAEER). By 2022, Japanese- and Chinese-funded coal plants will account for more than double that capacity, nearly 9,000 megawatts.

“Japanese and Chinese companies’ involvement in coal-fired plants helps to dictate the energy landscape in Indonesia,” PAEER researcher Jasman Simanjuntak said. “In coming years, their involvement in coal will increase. But the destructive impact that goes along with it also needs to be considered.”

Japan’s continued investment in coal infrastructure both at home and overseas makes it an outlier among developed countries, with an estimated development pipeline of 18 gigawatts.

That may be because of how lucrative the coal power business remains in developing countries. A 2018 survey of energy stakeholders in Indonesia by the consultancy PwC found that most expected returns of more than 15 percent on investments in power plants. The global average was 10.6 percent.

Greenpeace activists and fishermen occupy piling barges in Batang, Central Java, on March 30, 2017. a 2,000-megawatt coal-fired power plant, said to be the largest in Southeast Asia, is being built there at a cost of $4 billion, funded in part by the government-owned Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC). Image by Micka Bayu Kristiawan/Greenpeace.

Starting at home

In Japan, coal accounts for about a third of the energy mix, a reliance that the government has justified on the fuel being “cheap and more economical with scale.”

The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) says the country faces insurmountable challenges, particularly geographical ones, in promoting renewables. Due to the mountainous terrain, there’s not much suitable land for solar farms, making solar generation twice as expensive per kilowatt hour in Japan as in Europe.

But analysts say developing renewables over coal energy still make financial sense in the long run. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) estimates that a new utility-scale solar PV will be cheaper than coal in 2024, while the best new onshore wind projects will be cost-competitive with new coal before 2030.

The government has a target of increasing the share of renewables in the energy mix from 15 percent in 2016 to up to 24 percent by 2030. During that same period, it also envisions reducing the share of coal from 32 percent to 26 percent.

Giving up coal would also allow Japan to contribute to international carbon-reduction efforts to limit global warming under the 2015 Paris Agreement. Japan’s current policies and plans for new coal-fired power generation would result in levels of carbon pollution almost three times what’s consistent with the Paris deal between now and 2050, according to a report published by Climate Analytics with the collaboration of the Renewable Energy Institute of Japan (REI).

That should give the government in Tokyo a good reason to tap into Japan’s renewable potential and start exporting clean technology overseas to set an example for other countries, Greenpeace’s Hakko said.

“Japan could become a champion for renewables, but that requires giving up the harmful export of polluting coal technology,” she said.

The governments in the countries hosting the Japanese-funded coal plants should also take action to limit the pollution and emissions from these plants, Greenpeace’s Tata said. They can do this by “setting stronger emission standards and rapidly transitioning away from coal to clean and renewable energy,” he said.

“This change in policies and investments has to happen now, for human and environmental health, and to safeguard the future of our planet,” Tata said.


Banner image of activists demanding that Japan stop financing coal projects overseas during the 2018 U.N. climate talks in Katowice, Poland. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.


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