While trends to phase out coal power gains traction internationally, Japan has drawn criticism for its new domestic construction and exportation of coal plants to Southeast Asia. At the forefront of the country’s face-saving campaign is Environment Minister Koizumi Shinjiro, who has boldly claimed that “Japan is fully committed” to meeting the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement at a United Nations conference on climate change in December 2019.
Koizumi has been lambasted by environmental groups for echoing empty words without delivering concrete change towards Japan’s national energy policy. Although Koizumi has initiated internal discussions on greater decarbonization such as calling for stricter export requirements on coal plants, inter-ministerial conflict has stymied such efforts resulting in Japan’s lackluster climate change policy.
Energy policy in Japan is notoriously controlled by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), who, in addition, hold the power to approve the construction plan of power plants. While the Ministry of Environment (MoE) has been given the role of attending the Conference of Parties (COP) for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change there are limits in its ability to sway political judgement at home. At a recent press conference, Koizumi was confronted by a reporter asking whether the Ministry of Environment can take the lead in shaping Japan’s energy policy despite the fact that responsibility lies firmly with METI. It is a valid question that deserves some thought.
Energy policy is controlled by METI who also hold power over the construction plans of power plants
Conflict between competing ministries is a constant of the Japanese political system. METI and MoE are no exemption when it comes to bureaucrats championing policy preferences that are at odds with each other. Moreover, the close relationship between METI and business associations has forged strong links between Japan’s climate policy and industrial interests.
Professor Ian Neary from the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies argues that under Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, METI’s policy has pushed protecting the competitiveness and profitability of Japanese business over politically driven emissions cuts. This attitude was reinforced in 2017, when METI’s “Future Vision Towards the 2030s” made no explicit mention of “greening” the system.
MoE was established in 2001 as a ministerial upgrade from the previous Environment Agency (EIA) which was launched by Prime Minister Sato Eisaku in 1971 in an effort to tackle growing dissapproval over worsening pollution levels. The LDP’s fear of losing voters living in areas rife with pollution prompted the backing of a number of pollution control regulations which had been proposed a few years earlier by the Advisory Commission on Pollution.
Nonetheless, its presence has always been resisted by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI— the former version of METI), whose aims stand in direct contrast to those of environmental protection. For example, after the Air Pollution Control Law was passed in 1968, MITI cut emissions at power plants simply by building taller smokestacks, which spread the sulphur dioxide beyond urban monitoring stations.
If the past is anything to go by, we can expect the symbolic politics of environmental protection to continue under the Abe administration. Prior to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster, Japan had not made progress on emissions targets. According to the World Bank, emissions had reached 9.1 metric tons per capita in CO2 emissions by 2010, representing a 2.2% increase from 8.9 in 1990. The rapid closure of 54 nuclear plants following the Fukushima meltdown only reinforced a transition that was already in motion. The central government’s preferential treatment towards METI and pro-industry policy propelled the mass production of coal-fired power plants in Japan and across Southeast Asia.
The rapid closure of 54 nuclear plants following the Fukushima meltdown only reinforced a transition that was already in motion
Coal-fired electricity generation is used as a “base load” power source under the current national energy policy. Today, coal accounts for more than 30% of the energy mix, which is expected to be fractionally lowered to 26% by 2030. According to a report by the environmental NGO Kiko (Climate) Network, Japan already had 117 coal-fired power plants in operation as of 2018. Since 2012, the construction of another 50 was planned. The estimated annual CO2 emissions of the 15 units already operating is 17.78 million tons, more than 1% of Japan’s total annual emissions. Although 13 of those 50 units have since been canceled, another 22 units would equal approximately 74.74 million tons of CO2 annually, according to Asahi Shimbun.
Even in the renewable-rich region of Kyushu which often has an excess of solar power during certain parts of the day, Kyushu Electric Power Company has insisted on the need for more coal power, on the basis that cheap coal will continue to be in demand. The company went so far as to claim that “thermal power is essential for the spread of renewable energy” in that thermal power are plants that generate electricity through burning fuels such as coal, oil and LNG.
The decision seems to have been accepted without much opposition. Or rather, it falls in line with Japan’s national energy targets planned and outlined by METI. Similarly, the Japan Bank for International Development which is owned and administered by the Ministry of Finance has come under fire from environmental groups such as No Coal Japan and Greenpeace for their investment in coal plants across Southeast Asia. While the group fulfils environmental and social care rhetoric in its official guidelines, Japan’s public finance institutions are among the world’s biggest coal financers, with JBIC racking up over 7.5 billion U.S. dollars in overseas coal financing between 2013 and 2019.
Japan’s public finance institutions are among the world’s biggest coal financers
Under the current bulldozing of emissions targets in Japan, it is clear that the “ruling triad” between bureaucracy, big business, and the LDP contains camps in conflict with one another. It is also clear that Abe’s administration is no different from those bygone in its steadfast campaign for economic growth at the detriment of the environment. In this ministerial clash between decarbonizing and carbonizing, the silo-mentality of Japan’s political system is set to persist and those with the biggest budget and political power will prevail.
At this point, attempts by the MoE to phase out coal will likely be quashed without support from METI ministers or Abe himself. A shift in political leadership may be necessary to turn things around, whether that be prompted by increasing exogenous climate shocks or public dissatisfaction with the current administration.
Lauren Altria is a research intern at Asia Pacific Initiative and a Masters student in International Relations at Waseda University. She previously worked as a research associate at The Economist, and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Oxford.