• AFP-Jiji

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Kimiko Hirata has spent nearly half her life fighting to wean Japan off its dependence on coal, and now isn't the time to slow down, the award-winning activist warns.

"I'm hopeful, but we have no time to waste," said Hirata, the international director of NGO Kiko Network. "Our future will be gone if we don't act now," she added.

It's a message that Hirata, 50, has long worked to drive home in the world's third-largest economy, which upped its reliance on coal after the 2011 Fukushima disaster took its nuclear plants offline.

On Tuesday, the soft-spoken activist was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work, particularly on blocking new coal-fired power plants in Japan.

The country's 140 coal plants generate nearly a third of its electricity — second only to plants fueled by liquid natural gas. While a signatory to the 2015 Paris Agreement, Japan was the sixth-biggest contributor to global greenhouse emissions in 2017.

Last year the government set a new 2050 goal for carbon neutrality. That significantly firmed up Tokyo's climate commitments and was a "major step forward," Hirata said.

The development came after years of efforts by the Kiko Network — kikō is Japanese for climate.

The panel behind the Goldman prize said Kiko Network's "sophisticated, multi-pronged, national anti-coal campaign," launched in 2011, had helped block a third of 50 new coal projects.

The work Hirata spearheaded prevented "the emission of 42 million tons of CO2 per year," they added, referring to carbon dioxide.

'Hit by lightning'

Hirata is modest about her achievements, citing efforts at a local level, and warns that more is needed.

"I think (our work) helped put the brakes on to a certain extent," she said at her office in Tokyo. "But there are more coal plants than before, so in the broader sense we still face challenges and haven't won a victory yet."

Despite having devoted her adult life to tackling climate change, Hirata had no particular interest in environmental issues as a child.

Born in Kumamoto Prefecture, she was 20 and studying education when she attended an environmental lecture that she said made her feel "like I was hit by lightning.

"I was in huge shock when I realized that humans were harming the earth," she said. "We were living this carefree life, without any sense of guilt."

Despite a growing environmental interest, deepened by reading former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's book "Earth in the Balance," she initially went to work for a publisher. Unsure how to translate her environmental interests into a career, she decided to intern with a climate NGO in the United States.

It was a leap of faith — all the more so given that internet access was limited at the time — so she picked her target organization by flipping through a directory of U.S. NGOs at a local library.

Hopeful signs

After a year in the U.S., she returned to Tokyo around the time of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set binding targets for rich nations to curb emissions.

But while Japan hosted the conference that led to the accord, she found her society "staunchly resistant to change" on environmental issues.

Since the Kiko Network's 1998 founding, she has battled what she sees as a tendency in Japanese society to shun anything seen as disturbing the status quo.

"People might complain about politics at home, but they take no action," she said. "We're brought up not to express different opinions."

Japan can't afford that thinking, she warns, particularly given its exposure to the effects of climate change — including stronger typhoons, and heavy rain that has caused deadly flooding.

"We have to change our way of thinking otherwise young people will become the victims" of climate change, she says.

There are hopeful signs, she believes, including new commitments from local firms in the wake of Japan's new carbon neutral goal.

Engineering giant Toshiba Corp. has announced it will stop building new coal-fired power plants and shift to renewable energy, and automakers including Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. have announced new targets for electric or fuel-cell cars, and carbon-neutral production lines.

"If we take action now we can still make, it so I have hope," she said. "It's a matter of whether we can produce outcomes — and that, I think, is a challenge."

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