Coal Power, a Record Not to Celebrate – No More Time to Waste as the Climate Change Clock is Ticking
Romain Zissler, Researcher, Renewable Energy Institute
Notwithstanding trends in the most advanced economies, Japan’s reliance on the World’s dirtiest fuel just keeps getting worse.
In coal-poor Japan, a country that relies almost exclusively on imports to meet its various coal needs, 2017 marked a new record year for steam coal imports; 114.5 million tons (Chart 1).
In Japan, steam coal, also known as thermal coal, is by very far the type of coal that is the most broadly used in power plants to generate electricity. And roughly 85-90% of steam coal is used in the power sector.1
It is a fuel of choice because, compared with liquefied natural gas (LNG), its price – without internalizing externalities – is cheaper and less volatile (Chart 2).
However, coal is also the most polluting combustible fuel for electricity generation. For instance, steam coal carbon emission factor from electricity generation is more than double that of natural gas.2 Its continuous massive use is extremely harmful on human beings and the environment.
Following Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011 (at the end of fiscal year (FY) 2010) electricity generation from both coal and gas increased significantly to offset the reduction in electricity generation from nuclear power (Chart 3).
And even if the majority of the original nuclear power generation has now been replaced by energy efficiency & savings and renewable energy (RE),3 electricity generation from coal and gas remain stubbornly high. In the case of coal, FY2017 could even be a record year for electricity generation. And things could even get worse.
According to Kiko Network’s Japan Coal Plant Tracker, there are currently plans to construct more than 40 new coal power stations – totaling over 20 gigawatts in Japan.4 Needless to say, the realization of these projects would not only make Japan a laggard in the global fight against climate change, but it would also result in the country’s unacceptable obvious failure to meet its own long-term greenhouse gas reduction goal of -80% by 2050.
That completely runs countercurrent to observable trends in the most developed economies, which have turned their back on coal power for about a decade now (Chart 4).
Largely thanks to RE; the United States has substantially reduced its reliance on coal power since 2010, and major European nations like the United Kingdom and France will have phased out coal power well within a decade (by 2025 and 2021, respectively).5 “Even” Germany, which is so often criticized for its reliance on coal power, in 2017 generated a record low amount of electricity from coal since at least the beginning of the century.6 And as a result of all these progresses, in the European Union in 2017 – for the first time – more electricity was generated from wind, solar and bio combined than from coal on a yearly basis.7 A major achievement.
Instead of coal, all these countries are thus opting for low-cost, renewable electricity. And some of them have also started to implement ambitious carbon pricing to move further forward with their green agenda.
Japan is a RE-rich country, and is as capable as other countries to implement successful energy policies that will deliver a profitable and sustainable future. Enough time has dangerously been wasted already.