• SHARE

When the people of Tomioka were finally allowed short visits back to their homes after the 2011 Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant disaster, one of the first things they did was to prune the mountain town’s languishing cherry trees.

After years of intermittent tending, the century-old trees, just 10 kilometers from the destroyed nuclear plant, returned to full glory. Kiyonori Watanabe, who has lived nearby his entire life, stops his car in front of a metal barricade and pulls up a photo on his phone: clouds of delicate, pink sakura blossoms.

This is as far as he can go. Nine years after the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, the street lined by the trees is still uninhabitable. Other neighborhoods deemed safe now have only a fraction of their former population.

“Some elderly people have returned home, but their children and grandchildren have refused to do so because of radiation concerns,” says Watanabe, who oversees renewable energy in the region as director of Fukushima Electric Power Co. Ltd.

Japan is preparing for Tokyo 2020 with a pledge to host the first games powered entirely with renewable energy, and it would like nothing more than to put the legacy of the nuclear disaster behind it. But revived cherry blossoms and a foray into solar in Fukushima mask an unsettling truth: Coal has become a crutch here, severely limiting Japan’s ability to combat global warming.

The tragic events of March 11, 2011, are the single biggest reason for the smudgy stain on a country that used to lead on climate change. Fifty-four nuclear reactors once supplied almost a third of Japan’s electricity, free from greenhouse-gas emissions. That gave Japan an enviable profile among wealthy nations. The massive earthquake and tsunami triggered meltdowns at three reactors operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings Inc., forcing the country to slam the brakes on nuclear energy. Today, 24 of Japan’s 33 operable reactors remain offline.

The government ramped up its push toward renewable energy in the aftermath of the disaster — just not nearly as much as it cultivated coal projects. The dirty fuel was seen as the fastest, cheapest and most reliable way keep the lights on. A return to coal has left Japan with long-term climate goals that are unambitious — and increasingly, the subject of international censure.

Electricity generation is now responsible for almost 40 percent of the country’s emissions, and the amount of carbon dioxide generated by that electricity, per kilowatt-hour, is high compared to many other developed countries.

That makes it hard for Japan to pull its weight in global efforts to limit warming temperatures, since decarbonizing economies need to shift high-polluting sectors such as transport and manufacturing into clean power. Japan aims to cut total emissions 26 percent by 2030 from 2013 levels, yet even that modest goal lies in the shadow of Fukushima. By switching off its nuclear capacity nine years ago, Japan set a high level of emissions against which it now measures climate progress.

Renewable energy from wind, solar and hydro is projected to make up less than a quarter of total electricity by 2030, far below the global average. Roughly the same amount is projected to come from zero-emission nuclear sources, but only if the government is able to convince the public that it’s safe to restart additional reactors. Even under optimistic scenarios for the next decade, more than half of electricity will come from coal, natural gas and other fossil fuels.

Then there are exports: Japan continues to aggressively shop its coal-fired power technology abroad in nations such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh. It’s not just a profitable decision, as Japan’s energy elite see it, but a virtuous act that’s good for the planet.

Near the Imperial Palace is a district that’s home to both government officials and the Keidanren, the country’s powerful, industry-heavy business federation. The name of the neighborhood, Marunouchi, translates as “inside the circle.” At the center of this particular circle is coal.

The endless, shabby hallways inside the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry create a remarkable contrast to the gleam of the corporate towers outside. Scuffed white walls and dirty floors give way to a meeting room that appears to double as a storage space, where three ministry executives pull up chairs around a table littered with paper cups of cold tea from a prior appointment. They want to explain the country’s energy policy and ask not to be quoted by name so they can speak frankly. The discussion is on the record.

They’ve called the sit-down to make sure the government’s position is fully understood. Cutting emissions is important, the men from METI insist, but Japan needs to balance its climate aspirations with economic growth and energy security. Right now, the latter takes priority.

Last year’s deadly, record-setting typhoons, which left more than a million without power, have rattled officialdom without inspiring more ambitious climate goals. For now, the officials say, the U.N.’s call to cut emissions to zero by 2050 isn’t an option; Japan is instead promising an 80 percent reduction. And METI — whose policies helped orchestrate Japan’s post-World War II economic boom and bring forth the Walkman and Toyota Prius — believes this goal can be achieved through yet-to-be-created innovations. Any excess carbon dioxide, it says, could be vacuumed up by expensive and largely experimental carbon capture and storage technology.

The officials offer a pragmatic rationalization for supplying and financing coal-fired power throughout Southeast Asia. These high-efficiency coal plants are the “cleanest” in the world, making them the best option for poor countries facing soaring electricity demand.

While the government plans to review that policy, recent comments by senior leaders may foreshadow its conclusion.

“There are countries that have no other choice but to use coal-fired power,” Ryo Minami, director-general of METI’s oil, gas and mineral resources department, said earlier this month in announcing the review. “If they need us, we will help them with our superior technology that can contribute to curbing carbon dioxide emissions.”

Efficiency is a national obsession in Japan, as well as a double-edged sword. The country’s scientists won two Nobel Prizes this century for work on blue LEDs and lithium batteries. Constant efforts to improve the performance of everything from cars to washing machines have helped keep energy demand flat. This same ethos allows the country to boast about its advanced coal technology.

The coal-fired plants designed by Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems, known as integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plants, use less coal to render the same amount of power. That means a 10 percent to 15 percent reduction in carbon dioxide, compared with conventional Japanese coal plants. The company is now pursuing five to 10 clients abroad, a spokesman said late last year, declining to disclose specific countries.

The Nakoso IGCC Power GK integrated gasification combined-cycle power plant in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, is one of the coal-fired plants designed by Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems that use less coal to render the same amount of power. | BLOOMBERG
The Nakoso IGCC Power GK integrated gasification combined-cycle power plant in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, is one of the coal-fired plants designed by Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems that use less coal to render the same amount of power. | BLOOMBERG

“That kind of high-efficiency power system is needed,” says Takashi Fujii, an engineer who leads Mitsubishi Hitachi’s IGCC development. “It will contribute to their energy security, we think.”

But cleaner isn’t the same as clean. IGCC plants can burn lower-grade coal, which means the technology has the potential to unlock deposits that would have otherwise been left without a viable market. This can be boon for poorer countries sitting on untapped resources, but it’s hard to see how it’s very good for the planet.

Yasuko Kameyama has spent 30 years working on climate change, and her kids still tell her she’s not doing enough. “They say, ‘You seem to be working hard but you’re not making any change,'” she says wryly. “I cannot say they’re wrong.”

Her office in the Environment Ministry’s National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES) sits in one of a collection of brutalist buildings on a verdant campus in suburban Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, far from METI and the industrial power center in Tokyo. Kameyama spends her days in a communal workspace crammed with files and policy reports. The cover of her book, “Climate Change Policy in Japan,” shows a stone bridge in front of a famous Shinto shrine in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, where she spent part of her childhood. Each section begins with a haiku.

“Traditionally,” she says, “Japanese people used to be very sensitive to nature, and haiku was one way to show that sensitivity.” Her chapter on Japanese policy in the wake of the landmark Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse-gas emissions in 1997 starts with this verse:

A hill far away

where sunlight shines

myself surrounded by withered field

Kameyama was part of Japan’s delegation at the Kyoto talks, which ultimately committed 192 countries to individual targets for emissions. The only binding targets would apply to developed nations, whose role in creating the problem had been far larger. Japan, as host country, emerged with a reputation as a climate leader.

Two decades later, Kameyama worries that climate change has been severed from environmental awareness in her country. “Both the Japanese government, as well as major businesses and industries in Japan, frame the global warming problem as an energy issue, which has very little to do with nature,” she says. That makes it easier for other priorities, such as national security and economic growth, to become paramount.

Further muddying the waters is resistance from those who now see nuclear energy as a greater risk than climate change. “Every time we went to the people and talked about climate change, people would think of us as pro-nuclear,” she says of her work since Fukushima.

Close to 18,500 people died or went missing in the earthquake and tsunami, and the resulting meltdowns changed the public’s attitude toward nuclear energy. “That was quite unfortunate for those of us who really wanted to emphasize the urgency of climate change.”

At a Tepco-run museum in Tomioka dedicated to the disaster, there’s no attempt to whitewash what happened. “Our confidence about safety was merely arrogance and overconfidence,” an announcer says during one video.

The cleanup is ongoing. Tepco is still burning tons of single-use suits, masks and boots worn by workers, then storing the ash in special containers. Groundwater flowing into the reactor buildings has to be decontaminated and held in about 1,000 tanks.

Driving through Tomioka, Watanabe points out some of the smaller losses: a sushi shop here, a convenience store there. Gone are azalea bushes that were so beautiful, Watanabe recalls, that express trains would slow down to let passengers get a good look. Many wooden homes deteriorated in the years of absence and had to be torn down; today, weedy patches of asphalt are all that remain.

The biggest absence is the town’s young people, Watanabe says while driving past a derelict school. Most families opted not to return, even to areas the government ruled safe. Three generations of his family once lived under a single roof here, and construction on a bigger home had been scheduled to begin the day after the earthquake and tsunami struck. His son, his daughter-in-law and their baby never moved back.

“The disaster scrapped the plan,” Watanabe says. “We lost our dream.”

To bring families back, Watanabe believes it will take good jobs. For well over a century in this part of Japan, good jobs have been tied to energy.

Fukushima’s first coal mine opened in the town of Iwaki in 1857. The Joban Coal field, which stretches almost 100 kilometers north to south, employed 30,000 workers at its peak and supplied much of Tokyo’s power. In the 1960s, as cheaper overseas coal and oil undercut the mines, Joban Coal Mining Co. pivoted to tourism and opened a Hawaiian-themed resort that would form the basis of today’s flourishing hot-spring, or onsen, industry. (The unlikely coal-to-baths trajectory is immortalized in the 2006 film “Hura Garu,” or “Hula Girls.”)

Around the same time, nuclear power began creating new jobs to the north. Even today, a post-nuclear Fukushima offers a smorgasbord of energy for the rest of Japan. Three of four Mitsubishi IGCC coal projects in Japan are located there, including one in Iwaki that’s been in operation since 2013. The coal now comes from the U.S., China, Indonesia and elsewhere.

An abandoned railway track stretches past the disused Joban coal field in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. Japan's fossil-fuel crutch that helped the country to keep the lights on after the 2011 nuclear tragedy is making a switch to green energy far harder. | BLOOMBERG
An abandoned railway track stretches past the disused Joban coal field in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture. Japan’s fossil-fuel crutch that helped the country to keep the lights on after the 2011 nuclear tragedy is making a switch to green energy far harder. | BLOOMBERG

There’s a plan to get the prefecture to zero emissions by 2040, a milestone for which the rest of the nation has yet to set a target date. It includes local hydroelectric, solar, wind and geothermal energy. Hydrogen expected to be produced in Fukushima may power some of the vehicles for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Pulling onto the side of a narrow lane, Watanabe stops the car in front of Tomioka’s solar farm, one of seven that Fukushima Electric Power operates in the prefecture. Forty hectares of solar panels at the foot of the Abukuma mountains gleam in the sun. Built on disused rice paddies, the field smells of hay. Two of the former farmers still return to cut the grass.

Before the disaster, Fukushima produced 317 billion kWh of electricity a year, roughly 40 percent of the power consumed in Tokyo. This solar project is a drop in the bucket next to that demand. Within five years, however, solar power will become cheaper to build than coal, according to BloombergNEF. This gives Japan’s nascent solar industry plenty of room to grow — and also makes the national target for renewable energy in the decade ahead appear underwhelming. In fact, energy researchers at BNEF believe Japan could meet its 2030 renewable target right now, with little trouble.

So why isn’t the government pushing harder?

Taishi Sugiyama phrases his views about coal very carefully. He runs the Canon Institute, an independent offshoot of the digital-imaging giant that’s meant to shape the future of Japan. He knows it’s difficult to find people to speak openly about coal to journalists, and he worries about being attacked for his views.

Much of what he says comes down to this: Coal is integral to Japan’s energy security and economic health. If there’s a difference between Sugiyama and the officials from METI, it’s only that he’s more direct about the competition with China, a superpower whose industry is supported by cheap, coal-fired power.

“It’s a subtle point, so I must be careful,” he says. “If you lose economic ability in this Japanese geopolitical location, it’s very dangerous for the existence of the nation.”

As for Japan’s energy policy abroad, Sugiyama holds a view that’s pervasive among the industrial and government elite. Providing the world with cleaner-coal technology is a moral responsibility, not a setback in the fight against climate change. “If they choose it, then I think it’s an obligation for Japan to help them,” Sugiyama says. “If Japan doesn’t do it, China does.”

What about helping poorer countries in the region build renewable power infrastructure from scratch? “That’s very costly, and it’s not practical,” he says. “What Southeast Asian nations need is cheap and stable electricity.”

Sugiyama’s views have clout well beyond Japan. For the past 15 years, he has worked with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. body charged with assessing the science related to climate change. Anytime you read about the international scientific consensus behind the impact of warming temperatures on glacier melt, sea levels and threats to the food supply, it’s coming from work done by Sugiyama and hundreds of other scientists.

Japan is one of the biggest contributors of scientists to the IPCC teams that write its landmark reports and will work on the next one due out in April 2021. METI has nominated Sugiyama three times for seven-year terms to represent the country, and he has been a lead author on reports weighing the need for climate mitigation — efforts to reduce warming — versus the need for adaptation to the warmer world.

Asked several times to characterize his concern around man-made climate change, Sugiyama at first avoids answering but finally acknowledges limited risks. “So far there has not been so much impacts,” he says. “In the future, there are simulations that predict serious impacts.” Does he distrust those projections? There is a “range of research,” Sugiyama says, and the studies must be examined one by one.

You can find climate protests modeled on those of Greta Thunberg in Japan. They tend to be cheerful and muted. At one climate strike in Tokyo last fall, protesters moved in groups of a few hundred through the bustling Shibuya neighborhood. They kept tightly to one side so as not to disrupt traffic. It was no Extinction Rebellion.

The fact that protests are still fairly rare in Japan, coupled with the low-stakes messages coming from those in power, goes a long way to explaining the lack of climate urgency. Not once in the past decade has the environment topped the list of most pressing domestic issues in Japan, according to research by NIES.

Still, there are signs of change. Many Japanese companies have willingly volunteered to follow recommendations set by the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, an international body that tracks global systemic risks caused by the transition to clean energy. (The private sector task force was established by the Financial Stability Board and is chaired by Michael R. Bloomberg, the majority owner of Bloomberg LP.)

“I think probably the majority of influential business leaders would like to move on to a greater emphasis on renewable energy,” says former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who brought his Climate Reality Project to Japan for the first time last year. “But some of the old lions are digging in their heels to support continued expansion of coal.”

Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, 38, made a rare but cautious address to the international press in December on the sidelines of the failed COP25 climate talks in Madrid. “We can’t make a declaration of phasing out coal or fossil fuels right away,” the charismatic son of a former prime minister told reporters, “but we should continue to consider what kind of actions can be taken in the future.”

Since then, he’s strengthened his criticism of Japan’s exports of coal technology, only to be met with backlash from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Organizers of Tokyo 2020 are doing their best to bring about a shift in public awareness. Japan’s leading clean-car technology will be on display at the games this summer, with Toyota Motor Corp. providing 3,700 mostly electric and fuel-cell vehicles.

There’s also no shortage of flashier ideas — from cardboard beds to medals made with recycled metal from mobile phones — to put a sustainable gloss on an event with a significant environmental impact. Olympic organizers estimate that the carbon footprint for the Tokyo Games will be about 3 million metric tons, less than those for the Olympics in London and Rio de Janeiro. But, as always, it depends on how you count the carbon.

The primary reason for the drop is that all new infrastructure is to be repurposed after the event. Organizers plan to offset “unavoidable CO2 emissions” through voluntary efforts such as energy reduction in other parts of Japan.

Meanwhile, the impact of climate change is already being felt. To protect runners from the searing summer heat, the marathon will take place 800 km north of Tokyo.

The sun is setting by the time Watanabe pulls into the driveway of a two-story house a few minutes from the solar farm. Built for a family that never moved back, its owners now rent the property to Fukushima Electric Power.

Over fragrant tea and coffee at the kitchen table, with a mountain wind howling outside, Watanabe describes his hopes for solar energy and the jobs it could create. Solar growth has slowed in Japan, in part over regulations restricting development on scarce arable land. This seems as if it should be less of an issue for Fukushima. Despite a government-backed campaign to reassure the nation that food grown here is safe, many outside the prefecture remain fearful about its produce.

Watanabe sees plenty of potential for renewable energy. One day, he hopes, the region’s solar farms will all be taken over by residents, luring additional families home. “This town was an ideal place to live,” he says. “I want residents to return here from evacuation. I want to help them return.”

Tomioka’s solar project was even named by the townspeople after the Japanese word for cherry blossom, he adds. It’s called Sakura.

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)