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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Why Can’t Japan Kick Coal And Nuclear?

Earlier this year we reported on a startling anomaly in the global energy market that even the experts couldn’t have predicted. Just one nation, alone against the greening tides, was turning back to coal--Japan. Now, half a year later, a newly released report shows that Japanese financial institutions have funneled US$92 billion into coal and nuclear development—a sum bigger than the gross domestic product of Sri Lanka - in the months between January 2013 and July 2018 alone.

Energy Finance in Japan 2018: Funding Climate Change and Nuclear Risk was commissioned by a climate change-focused non-government organization (NGO) called 350.org based in the United States. The study found that the Japanese finance industry gave US$80 billion in loans and underwriting services, the majority (50 percent) of which went straight to coal development, with the other half split between nuclear and other fossil fuel resource companies. The other US$12 billion went to bonds and shares in the same industries.

Among the 151 Japanese financial institutions analyzed in the Energy Finance in Japan 2018 study, only 38 of them were not involved with coal or nuclear energy projects. A similar 350.org study from last year shows that Japanese insurance companies represent a large proportion of investors in domestic and international coal industries. Japan’s single biggest investor in coal for the five-year period studied was Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG), followed by Nippon Life Insurance (NLI) and Nomura Holdings.

Related: Electric Planes Could Soon Be A Reality

These numbers mark a stunning turnaround for Japan, which at one point was almost entirely dependent on nuclear, a far cleaner, more efficient energy source than coal. So why the about turn? There is actually a very clear source of Japan’s changing energy attitudes: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.

On March 11, 2011 the largest earthquake ever recorded in Japan at 9.0–9.1 (Mw), caused a devastating tsunami to hit land. At the Fukushima nuclear plant, this resulted in three nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen-air explosions, the release of radioactive material, and ultimately, a sudden and widespread mistrust of nuclear energy among the Japanese populace (and around the world).

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the government responded swiftly and strongly to public outcry and shut down all 54 of Japan’s nuclear reactors as they awaited new, significantly more rigorous safety standards. Now, more than 7 years later, just a fraction of these nuclear power plants have reopened for business. It was at this point that Japanese officials started looking for new avenues to power the country, and they found what they were looking for in coal.

Related: Gas Could Overtake Oil As The Largest U.S. Energy Source This Year

It’s difficult to say, however, how long-lived the Japanese coal renaissance will be. There is a large amount of opposition to the extremely dirty fossil fuel, with critics urging Japan to reverse its course and return to “greener” pastures. Encapsulating the nation’s ambivalence, at the same time that Japanese financial institutions were still funneling money into coal power development and bonds earlier this year, Japanese banks were also creating stricter financing guidelines to include advanced air-pollution technologies.

In fact even MUFG, mentioned above as Japan’s single biggest investor in coal, has significantly tightened their coal-financing policies this year, along with  Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. and Mizuho Financial Group Inc. At the same time NLI, Japan’s biggest insurer in terms of revenue, announced in July that it would no longer grant loans to new coal projects or invest in coal-fired plants, citing environmental reasons, and Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Company announced that it would stop financing overseas coal plants in May.

Some critics, including 350.org, say that these changes, while meaningful, are not nearly significant enough to stem the massive flow of Japanese money into coal, and thereby Japanese pollutants into our atmosphere. It’s still unclear whether these first steps away from coal will have any impact on the many coal projects already underway, and while investment may be now limited to some extent, it’s a far cry from divestment.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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  • Madan R on September 17 2018 said:
    In a kneejerk reaction, Japanese government shutdown all those well functioning reactors and ended up paying $50 billion/year for imported oil to power those plants.

    Later they switched rapidly to cheaper coal which could have released even more pollution. All this only worsens global warming which could create a Florence type hurricane that could wreak havoc on the smaller islands.

    But one good outcome of all this is that they installed 70 million efficient LED bulbs, 40 GW of solar panels. Now finally they are restarting those reactors 1 by 1. Hope they restart all those reactors and cut down the coal consumption drastically. Along with this, they should also direct all homes to install solar panels.
  • Jessica Lovering on October 17 2018 said:
    One correction, you say "These numbers mark a stunning turnaround for Japan, which at one point was almost entirely dependent on nuclear, a far cleaner". That's not true. At most, pre-Fukushima, nuclear provided ~30% of Japan's electricity, with coal providing another ~25%. Growth in LNG and oil made up most of the gap left by shuttered nuclear, in terms of generation, although coal did certainly increase (about 5 percentage points)

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