There were many hopeful signs for our climate over the past two weeks. All over the world, millions of people participated in the Global Climate Strike. Greta Thunberg spoke to world leaders during the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, expressing the anger and the hopes of an entire generation. And some leaders not only listened, but acted: Greece, whose energy system is heavily dependent on lignite, decided to exit coal by 2028 and Hungary followed with a coal exit announcement for 2030. Two major Indian States – Gujarat and Chhattisgarth decided to stop building further coal plants and the African Development Bank took a pledge to ditch coal.
No such signs from Japan, however. Japan now has the world’s 7th largest pipeline of new coal projects, and its companies and banks are a crucial driver of the coal industry’s growth in Asia.
A day before the Global Climate Strike, Urgewald launched a new update of the Global Coal Exit List (GCEL). This database provides key statistics on 746 companies operating all along the thermal coal value chain. 25 of the companies featured on the GCEL are headquartered in Japan, but their coal business is spread across multiple countries from Australia to Bangladesh. Altogether, Japanese companies are developing 30 GW of new coal power capacity, an amount that is larger than Poland’s entire operating coal plant fleet. Over half of these 30 GW are being built outside of Japan: in Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Bangladesh and South Africa.
Behind these plans are not only utilities such as J-Power or Chubu Electric, but also Japan’s largest trading houses such as Mitsubishi Corporation, Sumitomo Corporation and Marubeni. Although Marubeni announced in September 2018, that it would not enter into new coal power projects, the company still intends to build a glut of coal power stations that it began negotiating before.
In August 2019, Sumitomo made a policy announcement. While the company stated that it “will not develop new coal-fired power generation business”, Sumitomo’s policy lists so many exceptions that truly nothing is ruled out. As if to prove this point, Sumitomo began construction of the Van Phong 1 coal plant in Vietnam in August 2019. If we add in the coal plants Sumitomo is building in Bangladesh and Indonesia, the company aims to bring 4.5 GW of new coal-fired capacity on line within the next few years. And that is not all: Sumitomo is also seeking to develop “coal mines, railways and port infrastructure as a package” in countries like Russia and Mongolia.
For years now, the IPCC, UNEP and the UN Secretary General have warned against building further coal plants and called for a rapid phase-out of coal-based energy production. Yet Japan’s largest trading houses and big utilities continue to turn a deaf ear to these warnings. The time for patient engagement with these companies has run out. What is needed is action. Investors representing US$ 7 trillion in assets have already begun divesting coal plant developers such as Marubeni and J-Power from their portfolios. Further financial institutions now need to follow.
Two decades ago, one of the world’s most important climate treaties was forged in Japan. Today, we must ensure that it does not become the place where one of the decisive battles for the Paris climate goals was lost.
Katrin is climate campaigner and researcher for Urgewald’s Global Coal Exit List.
About the Global Coal Exit List (GCEL):
The GCEL was first launched in November 2017 and has played an influential role in shaping the coal divestment actions of many large investors, especially in Europe. The database covers the largest coal plant operators and coal producers; companies that generate over 30% of their revenues or power from coal and all companies that are planning to expand coal mining, coal power or coal infrastructure.
The GCEL can be downloaded at: https://coalexit.org