What the world can learn from Japan’s fight to kick coal

Coal is by far the dirtiest fossil fuel, producing more air pollutant particles and global warming gases than any other per unit of energy. But for some countries – even those that have the money and incentive to go green – ditching coal may be difficult.

Last month in Italy, members of the G7 – a consortium of industrialized democracies including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union – agreed in a communiqué to “phase out existing, unabated coal-fired power generation” by 2035 . Such a commitment, if implemented, will be significant: the bloc is collectively responsible for a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“This announcement sends a very positive signal,” said Ryna Cui, research director at the Center for Global Sustainable Development at the University of Maryland. “Having a concrete signal of leadership from the G7 can really have a significant impact.”

However, the word “unrelenting” has a lot of meaning. Refers to carbon dioxide emissions that are not captured or offset in some way. Theoretically, a coal-fired power plant could continue to operate with a carbon capture and storage system installed or use an offsetting mechanism in that language, but this technology has not yet been proven to be efficient and profitable on a large scale.

For some G7 countries this is a small increase. In countries such as Italy, Canada and France, coal maintains a single-digit percentage share in their energy mixes. The last coal-fired power station in the UK is due to close this year. These countries are likely to achieve zero carbon emissions well before the deadline.

For others it is a huge burden. Japan’s 125 million people get about 27 percent of their total energy from coal, and the country depends on burning rocks for 31 percent of the electricity needed to power homes and businesses. Despite Japan’s high-tech reputation, its energy mix more closely resembles that of many middle- and low-income countries. Therefore, Japan’s move away from coal serves as a lesson (and warning) for the rest of the world in its efforts to curb climate change.

How Japan explains the larger challenge of moving the world away from coal

Japan is the world’s fourth largest economy and eighth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Japan’s current policy would reduce the share of coal-fired electricity to only 19 percent by 2030, leaving just five years to choke off the rest. To achieve this goal, the country would need to either make up for this shortfall with cleaner energy sources or modernize its coal fleet to phase out carbon emissions in just over a decade.

This makes Japan a more relevant example of the decarbonization challenge for the rest of the world than its other G7 brethren. Although wealthy countries have by far emitted the most greenhouse gases, future emissions will grow mainly in developing countries. Today, fossil fuels still meet the vast majority of global energy demand.

Graph of global energy sources over time

Coal, oil and natural gas continue to power the world
Our world in data

Global coal consumption has actually remained fairly stable for more than a decade, even as population and wealth have increased, and may already have peaked, according to the International Energy Agency. Similarly, total global greenhouse gas emissions have also remained stable for years and, according to some estimates, may now be declining.

These are signs that the link between greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth is starting to unravel, meaning wealth doesn’t have to correlate with excess pollution. Dozens of countries have already decoupled their economic growth from their use of fossil fuels.

But to stop climate change, greenhouse gas emissions must be eliminated, and that will likely mean a sharp decline in coal burning in every country.

To meet the Paris climate agreement’s goal of limiting warming this century to below 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius), this must happen quickly – much faster than what the G7 has promised on coal. “2035 is too late,” Jane Ellis, head of climate policy at the think tank Climate Analytics, said in an emailed statement.

Global energy demand is growing, and coal may meet this appetite unless there are better and cheaper alternatives, especially for developing countries. Last year, Cui co-authored a report on the state of global coal-fired power. It reported that 204 gigawatts of coal-fired generating capacity are under construction in 38 countries, with 353 gigawatts in the planning stages. China and India are already the world’s largest coal consumers, and their energy needs are growing.

However, not all of the planned bets will actually be made available online. The number will depend on economic factors, energy security issues and climate policy. However, when faced with challenges such as inflation and disruptions in global energy trade, the report notes, countries “continue to favor coal over other options.”

Coal, despite all its disadvantages, is quite cheap and available in large quantities. That’s why it was used to fuel the industrialization of the global North and why the global South continues to rely on it.

Japan is an example of this. It is a resource-poor island nation, so it imports 94 percent of its energy supply. This raises costs for households and businesses and increases pressure to choose cheaper energy sources.

A chart of Japan's energy sources shows that 27.4% comes from coal, 38.7% from oil and 21.1% from natural gas.

Japan still gets the vast majority of its energy from fossil fuels.
International Energy Agency

When Japan was rocked by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake in 2011 that led to an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Japan shut down its fleet of nuclear reactors that provided a third of its electricity without carbon dioxide emissions. To fill this gap, the country has relied on fossil fuels such as coal.

Just last year, the country launched two new coal-fired power generators – an investment that could take decades to pay off. To meet the 2035 target, some Japanese coal-fired power plants will close ahead of schedule, before construction bills are paid, or they will require costly upgrades to emissions control equipment.

The road ahead of Japan is difficult and you may easily lose your way.

The success or failure of the G7 in achieving climate goals will have global consequences

On the other hand, the wealth, power and prestige concentrated in the G7 could help spur the new technologies and economies of scale needed to ensure that coal is not the default choice for the world.

Cui noted that the G7 communique did set specific targets for other energy sources: members reaffirmed their ambition to triple the use of renewable energy to at least 11 terawatt-hours, and to deploy 1,500 gigawatts of storage capacity by 2030. They pledged to double spending on energy grid modernization to reach more than $600 billion annually by the end of the decade. By paying wholesale for these clean energy technologies when they are more expensive, the G7 can help lower their prices for other countries.

Japan, in particular, has long been concerned about what it calls its degree of energy self-sufficiency: it produces just 12 percent of its energy within its borders, one of the smallest shares of any rich country. To tilt the numbers in its favor, Japan is aggressively using more renewable energy to increase its independence.

A chart showing the implementation of renewable energy in Japan.  It shows an 18% annual increase in renewable energy from 2012 to 2020.

Japan aims to increase its use of renewable energy to meet its self-sufficiency and climate goals.

Japan currently gets about 24 percent of its energy from clean sources – such as solar, wind, nuclear and hydropower – and aims to increase that share to 59 percent by 2030, according to a study last year by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The study found that Japan has the technology and know-how to reach 90% by 2035 while reducing energy costs. So there are encouraging signs that as power generation areas expand, the burden of transitioning away from coal will become less painful.

But even as they slowly lose their love for coal, G7 members are growing more fond of natural gas. “Over the last decade, gas has been the biggest source of global CO2 emissions growth, with many G7 governments investing in new domestic gas facilities,” Ellis said. They also ship abroad. The United States, the world’s largest producer of natural gas, expects to double its natural gas exports by 2030 even as it seeks to significantly reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for centuries, so today’s emissions will shape the climate for many years.

G7 countries have the money and resources to adapt to many of the worst impacts of climate change, but many less wealthy countries do not. Without even more aggressive action by the world’s biggest polluters, the people who will suffer the most will be those who have contributed least to climate change.