In the 1990s Japan was seen as a pioneer country in the world on protecting the environment. Strict environment related laws were put into practice after a series of disastrous incidents due to random industrialization of 1960s caused widespread health problems; and the country played a crucial role in the conclusion of Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement aimed at salvaging the mother earth from the salvo of random development initiatives without considering what impact that might have on the atmosphere and our surroundings. The Protocol was seen as a first major step in realizing the danger that our endless pursuit for economic growth poses to our own survival and outlined measures that we need to take for reversing that destructive trend. Although not a total success due to the objection of a few powerful nations; the Kyoto Protocol nevertheless started the ongoing process of checking the pulse of the earth and suggesting remedies.
In the past Japan was also praised for her own initiatives in reducing carbon emission and introducing technologies that are environment friendly. However, as we approach the second decade of twenty-first century, much of that has by now become history and from the position of an environmentally sensitive country, Japan has become sort of a pariah state looking for ways to hide her wrong environment policies behind the façade of long-term goals. This had become clear at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) that had just been concluded in the Spanish capital Madrid after prolonged and heated discussions over what measures we need to take for saving the earth from unchecked development initiatives.
At COP25 Japan was twice designated the recipient of “Fossil of the Day” award, a feat that tells more about failures. Fossil of the Day is presented daily by Climate Action Network (CAN) to countries that perform worst at the UN climate talks. Initiated by the German NGO Forum at COP5 held in Bonn in 1999, the award has since then become a much publicized event throughout the duration of the yearly climate talks and presented to one or more countries on each conference day for their efforts in blocking progress at the negotiations. Japan had been targeted this year for her failure to come up with a clear commitment for phasing out coal-fired power generation.
Japan’s dilemma with coal is a relatively recent matter that started with the shutdown of nuclear power generators following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Currently, coal-fired power generation accounts for around 33 percent of Japan’s total energy output. Approximately 100 thermal power plants are in operation in the country with 20 more now under construction. Once the newly constructed power plants become operational, country’s share of coal-fired power generation are due to increase significantly, and with that blaming the country for polluting the environment is also due to intensified.
Only a decade ago Japan was seen as moving towards an environment friendly power generating country with significant efforts put on the development and fostering of new energy sources. The Fukushima disaster has changed all that and brought Japan back to square one where country’s policy makers and industry leaders find coal as an option they no more can ignore. The disaster forced Japan to suspend the operation of all existing nuclear power generators and the country is finding it hard to restart those amid strong public opposition. As a result, with most of the nuclear power plants still remaining out of operation, country’s share of nuclear power plummeted to around 3 percent from almost 30 percent of pre-disaster figure. The vacancy has been quickly filled-up by coal.
Coal has for long been pointed out by scientist and researchers as a prime source of carbon emission polluting our environment. Although some advanced countries including Japan claim that new technology they are applying in power generation downgrade the pollution risk from coal significantly, many find the argument not scientifically convincing. Hence, Japan is coming under increasing criticism from environment activists and citizens’ groups for failing to keep up to the promises of expanding the use of sustainable energy sources like solar, wind or geo-thermal.
In addition, critics are also pointing out to Japan’s policy of exporting coal-fired power generation to developing countries as another disturbing aspect. Japan is one of the leading countries in the world involved in such trade of pollution in the name of development assistance. Our country is also one prime destination of Japan’s such energy generation export, with Matarbari and few other projects that are due to become operational soon.
This policy of Japan’s dependence on coal and also exporting coal-fired energy technology to countries around the world came under strong criticism in Madrid and Japan was duly rewarded with the first of two Fossil of the Day award on December 3 when industry minister Hiroshi Kajiyama at a press conference declared that Japan would stick to using coal-fired power generation plants. It eventually put heavy pressure on environment minister Shinjiro Koizumi for finding a way out that would help the country avoid being criticized further at the international gathering.
The young minister delivered his speech on December 11 amid widespread expectation that he might respond to earlier criticisms and hint about the shift from earlier standing. He started his speech with the announcement that he was expecting his first child next year, the reality that puts a heavy burden on him to secure the future of himself, his unborn child and all children beyond 2050. He also mentioned that he took UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ call for halting dependence on coal was a message directed to his country. However, at the end he failed to offer any specific measure that would indicate Japan’s willingness to stop coal-fired power generation for the sake of future generations. For this the environment group CAN derided him with its Fossil of the Day award, a second one for Japan in a single conference.
Analysts in Japan, however, is saying that Koizumi himself was willing to go ahead with making some commitments towards phasing out of harmful energy practices, but was helpless amid strong opposition from the industry ministry and also from country’s powerful business lobby. The end result had been Japan identified as a country that failed again to respond to climate emergency. Koizumi himself acknowledged the failure as an expected outcome as he failed in his attempts to review Japan’s position on promoting exports of coal-fired power plants to developing countries.
Japan’s Madrid debacle shows clearly that when business interest become predominant, other pressing matters get less priority even at the cost of country’s image. This is where Japan stands now, not the same Japan of 1990s, which was aggressively moving forward keeping environmental issues high on the agenda.
(Tokyo, December 15, 2019)