TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to burnish his green credentials.

Japan, he said, will exercise “firm leadership” on climate change at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka this week, with a focus on “disruptive innovation” that generates economic growth.

It also was a theme echoed by G-20 energy and environment ministers in their pre-summit meeting in the Japanese town of Karuizawa.

But Abe’s ambitions conceal a dirty secret. 

Japan is hooked on coal, and it can’t kick the habit, environmentalists say. It is even helping to keep its Asian neighbors burning coal, too. 

Since 2012, Japan has embarked on a major spending spree to modernize its coal industry, which it boasts as one of the cleanest in the world. Japan has 12 new plants already up and running, 15 being built and 10 in the planning stage.

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Among the G-20 nations, Japan is the second-biggest source of public funding for new coal plants after China. Japan has had eight new overseas coal plants approved since the signing of the Paris climate accord in 2015. Three Japanese banks are among the top four private lenders to the coal industry around the world, according to Bank Track, a nonprofit group monitoring global finance.

“The climate emergency demands an urgent response from governments across the world,” Greenpeace Japan said in a statement. “To show real climate leadership, the Japanese government needs to stop bankrolling the destruction of the climate.”

'Reduce its dependency'

The irony is that Japan is the definition of “cutting edge” in Asia, in terms of technology, finance and fashion, said Renato Redentor Constantino, the head of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities in the Philippines. 

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“The seal of Japan is that it’s efficient, it’s efficient, it’s clean, it’s modern,” he said. “But they are increasingly being seen as tied to the past, to a past the world is trying to leave behind.”

In Karuizawa, Japan’s minister for the economy, trade and industry, Hiroshige Seko, said there had been “serious discussions” about coal at the pre-summit meeting. 

But as long as there are still countries dependent on coal-fired power to secure their access to energy, Japan will continue to build coal plants for them, he said, arguing that Japan’s technology emits “far less” carbon dioxide than others’.

“Japan doesn’t think it is all right to use coal-fired power for good,” he said. “Rather, we think we have to reduce its dependency. However, the reality is that there are countries that have to use coal-fired power because of its cost or because of their conditions of electric transmission and grids.”

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Environment Minister Yoshiaki Harada, though, acknowledged that coal power, even using the latest technology, emits twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas and that if Japan goes ahead with its current plans to build coal plants, it will struggle to meet its target of a 26 percent cut in emissions by 2030.

His ministry, he said in an interview, is tightening the environmental assessment standards for new coal plants and wants to expand investment in renewables to make them part of the country’s “base energies.” 

But the voice of Japan’s trade ministry is by far the more powerful one, backed by an industry lobby closely tied to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. 

Environmental groups argue that industrialized nations need to eliminate coal by 2030 if they are to meet their Paris accord objectives. Already, France and Britain aim to beat that deadline, while Canada aims to meet it and Germany isn’t far behind.

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Trump's coal policies

Japan, though, is failing to meet the challenge, and the Trump administration is actively trying to reverse the decline of the U.S. coal industry. 

This month, Japan unveiled its plan to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and to zero in the second half of this century, though experts say that is not fast enough to prevent a 1.5-degree-Celsius warming in the planet.

An earlier draft calling for the phasing out of coal power was abandoned in the face of strong opposition from industry, environmentalists say. Japan, the world’s largest coal importer, says coal will still account for 26 percent of its energy production by 2030, from 32 percent now. 

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Japan’s new climate-change strategy, the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper ironically observed in a headline, amounted to “coal power to be sustained in pursuit of a decarbonized society.”

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Throughout Asia, environmental groups accuse Japan of financing a Vietnamese coal plant, the Van Phong 1, using outdated technology below the standards it imposes at home. In Indonesia, Japanese finance is involved with coal projects cited in a viral documentary, “Sexy Killers,” that explores the link between the coal industry and political corruption.

In the Philippines, Constantino says Japan is financing a coal industry that is rapidly becoming uneconomic and could leave behind billions of dollars in stranded assets.

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At home, environmental groups say Japan missed a huge chance to invest aggressively in renewables after a 2011 tsunami caused multiple reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant

Nuclear closures

That disaster forced the entire nuclear industry to be shut down, but instead of boosting solar and wind power, the government poured more money into restarting the nuclear industry, an effort dogged by local opposition, safety concerns and technical setbacks. 

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Now, it is banking on new technologies to usher in a low-carbon era — developing hydrogen as an energy source, as well as carbon capture, utilization and storage.

 “We need new technologies, innovation — and also to bring down the cost of existing technologies,” said Helen Mountford, a climate and economics expert at the World Resources Institute in Washington. “But that’s not going to be enough. We need to see a rapid transition in the energy sector, and the most obvious element of that is to give up coal.”

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There are some encouraging signs for environmentalists. Public concern about climate change is growing, especially after a heat wave last year caused more than 1,000 deaths, and many Japanese companies are signing up to a global pledge to reduce their emissions.

As coal also becomes increasingly uneconomic, Japan’s biggest three life insurance companies are restricting their coal financing, and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group announced in May it would no longer finance new coal-fired power plants.

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With the United States withdrawing from the Paris accord and China not ready to take up a leading role on climate issues, there is a leadership void in Asia. Tokyo is “sitting on the fence,” Constantino said.

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“It’s a failure of imagination, which translates to a failure of vision, which explains why there’s a failure of leadership,” he said.

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