The recent turnaround in the Environment Ministry’s position on the construction of new coal-fired thermal power plants, which it had earlier opposed out of concern that more of such plants would undermine Japan’s goal of cutting its emissions of global warming gases, seems yet another indication that near-term cost factors prevail in the nation’s energy policy. The power industry’s rush to coal — which is cheaper than natural gas but emits roughly double the amount of carbon dioxide when burned as fuel in power plants — and the government’s support come in sharp contrast with the moves in other advanced economies to cut back on its use.

The Environment Ministry is reported to have reversed its objections after the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry promised to beef up its supervision of the power industry’s voluntary efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The government must not leave the efforts in the hands of the industry. It should take effective steps to ensure that emissions from the power sector, which account for 40 percent of Japan’s total, are steadily reduced.

Japan’s power companies have significantly relied on fossil fuel-generated electricity since the 2011 meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant led most of the nation’s nuclear power plants to be idled. Not only the major utilities but new entrants to the electricity retail market in the upcoming liberalization in April plan to build large numbers of new coal-fired thermal power plants because coal is less expensive than liquefied natural gas (LNG) as fuel. The Abe administration’s policy on energy mix envisions that coal-fired thermal power, which accounted for 30 percent of the nation’s total electricity generation in 2013, will cover 26 percent of the total power supply in 2030.

But regulations on coal-fired power plants are being tightened in many other countries due to concerns over their impact on climate change. Regulations in the United States and Britain have made it difficult to build new coal-fired plants, while existing plants have been subject to tighter emissions controls.

Last year, the Environment Ministry refused to endorse the planned construction of five new coal-fired power plants in Yamaguchi, Aichi, Chiba and Akita prefectures in its environment assessment of the plans on the grounds that such plants would endanger the government’s pledge to reduce Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 by 26 percent from 2013 levels.

The ministry said it reversed its objections because METI, which oversees the power industry, has pledged to guide the power firms in achieving their voluntary goals to cut carbon dioxide emissions. The industry has set a target of cutting its emissions per 1 kw of electricity sales in 2030 by 35 percent from the 2013 level, and plans to set up a new organization comprising 36 companies to control and monitor the reduction plans by each of the firms. METI also reportedly plans to set numerical targets on the efficiency of thermal power plants, including coal-fired facilities, and prod power companies to scrap inefficient plants.

But it’s not clear whether the industry’s voluntary efforts will work as promised. The Environment Ministry says it will regularly monitor progress in the industry’s efforts and will call for a review of government measures if the power companies are falling short of their goals. But such actions might prove too late to rein in Japan’s emissions.

The Paris agreement reached in December at the United Nations conference on climate change calls on countries around the world to hold the increase in global average temperature to less than 2 degrees above pre-Industrial Revolution levels. It’s clear that the plans submitted by governments to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, including Japan’s 26 percent cut by 2030, will fail to keep the climate change within the target. The governments are being urged to do more.

The accord also calls on the countries to reduce emissions as quickly as possible to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks” such as forests that absorb greenhouse gases — meaning to cut emissions effectively to zero — in the second half of this century. It’s unclear if the construction of large numbers of coal-fired power plants, which would be in operation for the coming 40 to 50 years if they’re built now, will be consistent with the efforts required in the pact. The government and the power industry should think again whether their focus on near-term cost competitiveness of coal-fired plants would not affect their long-term efforts to combat climate change.

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