Prime Minister Abe will unveil his Long Term Strategy on greenhouse gas emissions for Japan at the upcoming G20 meeting in Osaka.   Reuters reported on June 11th that this strategy will establish an aim for Japan to be carbon neutral by 2050 but with no specific plans for coal phase out. The plan focuses on technology innovation related to fossil fuel use and is likely to disappoint pro-climate and renewable campaigners and some corporate stakeholders.

How are Climate and Energy Policy Decided in Japan?

Unlike many other OECD nations, Japan formulates its energy mix with strong central government policy, mainly driven by the Ministry of Economics, Trade and Industry (METI). Policies pertaining to climate change are formulated in part by the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and others, but it is METI – with its grip on energy and industrial policy and standards – that is most powerful. The Ministries suggest policy options which are approved by the Cabinet Office, currently headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Who Influences Government Policy on Climate and Energy?

As in all democratic nations, a myriad of entities attempt to influence Japan’s central government policy on energy and climate change due to the high stakes involved for business and society in general. The corporate sector wields particularly strong influence in Japan in comparison to Europe or the US. In the case of energy policy, the electric utility sector both directly and through the powerful, cross-sector Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) wields a massive influence. Through their control of technical agencies and policy think tanks, Keidanren and the utility sector have been able to influence the detailed permitting, codes and economic studies that determine both policy decisions and cost dynamics of the various energy options. An example of this influence can be found in Japan’s debate surrounding renewable energy vs. coal power, where coal power is winning out. Heavy industry sectors like steel, automotive and engineering also wield strong influence. Civil society groups are less influential in Japan than in the US and Europe.

What is the Current Energy Policy in Japan?

Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Japan has pivoted to coal power to replace nuclear as a baseload source of electricity. This has resulted in 50 domestic coal power projects (23 GW) planned since 2012, to add to over 100 coal plants already in operation (44GW). Renewables provided approximately 16% of Japan’s power generation in 2018 according to METI, with a majority coming from hydro, geothermal and bioenergy. Wind power remains largely untapped in Japan. The country’s energy plan will be revised by METI in 2021 – a process currently under heavy scrutiny for its focus on coal power.

Why is Japan Funding Coal Power Overseas?

A side effect of Japan’s pivot to coal since 2012 has been the uptick in Japan’s state financing of overseas coal power projects. According to key government lender the Japan Bank for International Co-operation (JBIC), the explicit aims of Japan’s overseas lending are to secure resources for the nation’s domestic power needs (in the case of resource projects) and to promote export of Japanese technology (in the case of power projects). This has triggered significant investment in coal power in emerging Asia to allow Japanese trading and engineering firms to develop economies of scale for their advanced coal generation technologies and businesses. The result is the addition of close to 30GW of overseas coal power into Japan’s funding pipeline since 2012, with the majority in Indonesia (11GW), India (8GW), Vietnam (6GW) and South Africa (4GW). Japan contends that all of its projects from 2017 onward meet the new OECD guidelines on coal power.

Will Japan Shift its Focus on Coal vs. Renewable Energy?

The industry – METI – Cabinet Office triangle of power is extremely difficult to penetrate, and the country appears determined to pursue its vision of “clean coal” despite, for example, recent oppositional statements from the outspoken Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono and the Environment Minister. However, in a promising turn for climate, a pro-climate policy corporate advocacy movement is emerging (e.g. Japan Climate Leaders Partnership). Japan’s grassroots climate movement is also gaining traction using the air pollution and economic framings, as well as by allying with local governments opposing coal.

Why is Japan’s Coal Policy Important for Climate Change?

The IPCC’s Global Warming of 1.5C of October 2018 suggests the room for coal power is limited, and certainly new coal power construction should be avoided if we are to restrict warming to below 1.5C and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. New coal power in countries like India, Indonesia and Vietnam could potentially lead to dependence on coal supply chains with implications for carbon emissions far beyond Japan’s own.

Download our fact sheet containing more details and clarifications of commonly used arguments in Japan for its continued coal focus.