OSAKA – As international public concern over the increasingly dire climate crisis grows, most notably among the world’s youth, a key United Nations climate change conference kicks off in Madrid on Monday.
For Japan, the conference will be used as an opportunity to promote cutting-edge environmental technologies and explain its reasons for continuing to rely on fossil fuel energy, including coal, in the coming years even as calls domestically and abroad to stop all use of coal grow stronger.
The annual meeting of U.N. delegates to discuss ways to reduce greenhouse gases takes place just days after a worldwide climate strike march by the youth-led movement Fridays for Future at 3,000 different locations worldwide Friday, which called for stronger, quicker measures to deal with the climate change.
In Japan, more than 2,000 people across 25 prefectures participated, leaders of the marches estimated.
“Japan suffers a lot from natural disasters, and we’ve recently seen an increase in the number of large-scale typhoons,” said Masamichi Kobayashi, a Kansai University student and leader of the Osaka chapter of Fridays for Future, the worldwide movement launched by Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg in 2018.
“This is a sign of the climate crisis we’re in, and the purpose of the Nov. 29 march is to get more people to realize how global warming is leading to severe weather patterns and damage in Japan and around the world,” he told reporters a few days before the march.
This year’s U.N. conference, known as the Conference of the Parties (COP) 25, is quite technical in nature. It has several purposes, including to finalize various rules related to the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change (called the COP 21 conference), which, as of this year, has been signed by over 190 states and the European Union and ratified by over 180 nations.
The Paris agreement calls on all nations to keep the global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to make efforts to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees. It also obligates states to communicate their post-2020 plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions with these goals in mind.
“With the Paris agreement starting next year, one really big issue at COP 25 is the issue of carbon pricing, and coming to an agreed set of general guidelines for countries interested in carbon trading,” says Masako Konishi, a meteorologist and deputy director of conservation at WWF Japan. “The other main focus of COP 25 will be if it provides momentum towards countries raising their previously announced emissions reductions goals so they are more ambitious.”
Japan’s goals under the Paris agreement include reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent below 2013 levels by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050, though the base year used for the 80 percent target was not stated.
On Friday, Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, who will attend COP 25, announced that greenhouse gas emissions in Japan totaled about 1.24 billion tons in 2018, the fifth year in a row that emissions have decreased. Since 2005, total greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by about 10 percent.
At the same time, Koizumi continued to defend the nation’s use of coal.
“Japan doesn’t have much in the way of natural (fossil fuel) resources and we’ve undertaken a policy of reducing reliance on nuclear power,” said Koizumi. “We face the reality that, as an economic power, a large amount of electricity is necessary, even though we want to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, including coal, as much as possible.”
Japan has drawn increased domestic and international criticism for continuing to support coal-fired thermal plants, which have provided about 30 percent of its electricity in recent years, and coal-related technologies. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet approved a greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategy that included support for hydrogen and carbon dioxide capture and utilization, a controversial technology that has raised concerns about its cost and practicality.
In addition, the strategy did not offer a detailed plan for phasing out coal plants, which United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the recent U.N. Environment Programme’s 2019 Emission Gap Report are calling for, along with the halting of all construction on such facilities after next year.
Instead, Japan’s presence at COP 25, where Koizumi actions will be the subject of intense scrutiny from the domestic and international environmental NGO communities, will include side events to promote carbon dioxide capture and storage.
“Koizumi should use COP 25 to indicate the government will open discussions on raising Japan’s commitment to GHG reductions, and resubmit its national plans to do so,” said Mie Asaoka of the Kyoto and Tokyo-based climate change NGO Kiko Network — a veteran attendee of COP meetings — in a Nov. 22 press release. “He should also make clear that Japan will phase out coal by 2030.”
WWF Japan’s Konishi said that Koizumi could probably also expect a lot of questions from the international media about Japan’s support for coal, and that it’s a chance for him to ‘read the international wind,’ which is blowing against the nation’s current policy. Japanese and international environmental groups have begun using the phrase “Coal Japan,” which is a play on the popular catchphrase “Cool Japan.”
“Unfortunately, Japan isn’t considered a leader in U.N. climate change negotiations, even as it’s highlighted for its coal promotion,” Konishi said. “I expect Koizumi will realize that if Japan continues with its attitude towards coal, it will end up playing the ‘bad cop’ at U.N. climate change conferences.”
The Madrid conference begins Monday and concludes on Dec. 13.