Takasago Thermal Power Plant, owned by Electric Power Development Co., or J-Power, in Takasago, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, on August 18, 2022.
Japan relies on coal power more than any other G7 country, but it’s aiming to make big cuts. | Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images

If a wealthy, advanced economy is having a hard time getting off coal, what does it mean for the rest of the world?

Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel by far, producing more particulate air pollution and global warming gasses than any other, per unit of energy. But for some countries — even ones with the money and the motivation to go green — coal can be hard to quit.

Last month in Italy, members of the G7 — a consortium of industrialized democracies that includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union — agreed in a communiqué to “phase out existing unabated coal power generation” by 2035. Such a pledge, if followed through, is meaningful: The bloc is collectively responsible for one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“This announcement is sending a very positive signal,” said Ryna Cui, research director for the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland. “Having a specific leadership signal from the G7 really can have an important influence.”

The word “unabated,” though, is doing some heavy lifting. It refers to carbon dioxide emissions that are not captured or somehow balanced out. Theoretically, a coal-fired power plant could continue running with a carbon capture and storage system in place or use an offsetting mechanism under this language, but the technology has yet to prove efficient and cost-effective at scale.

For some G7 countries, this is a light lift. In nations like Italy, Canada, and France, coal is clinging to single-digit percentage shares of their energy mixes. The UK’s last coal-fired power plant is scheduled to shut down this year. These countries will likely coast to zero coal well ahead of schedule.

For others, this is a massive burden. Japan’s 125 million residents get around 27 percent of their overall energy from coal, and the country depends on burning rocks for 31 percent of its electricity to power homes and businesses. Despite Japan’s high-tech reputation, its energy mix looks more like those of many middle- and lower-income countries. That’s why Japan’s journey away from coal offers a lesson (and a warning) for the rest of the world in the endeavor to limit climate change.

How Japan explains the bigger challenge of shifting the world away from coal

Japan is the world’s fourth-largest economy and its eighth-largest greenhouse gas emitter. Japan’s current policies would only bring coal’s electricity share down to 19 percent by 2030, leaving just five years to smother out the rest. To achieve the goal, the country would have to either make up that shortfall with cleaner energy sources or retrofit the coal fleet to snuff out their carbon emissions in just over a decade.

That makes Japan a more relevant example of the challenge of decarbonization for the rest of the world than its other G7 brethren. Though wealthy countries emitted the most greenhouse gasses to date, future emissions are poised to grow mainly in developing countries. Right now, fossil fuels still fulfill the vast majority of the world’s energy needs.

Graph of global energy sources over time
Our World in Data
Coal, oil, and natural gas still power the world

Global coal consumption has actually held fairly steady for more than a decade, even as populations have increased and wealth has amassed, and according to the International Energy Agency, it may have already peaked. Similarly, total global greenhouse gas emissions have also remained level for years, and by some estimates, may now be in decline.

These are signs that the link between greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth is starting to separate — meaning wealth doesn’t have to correlate with outsize pollution. Dozens of countries have already decoupled their economic growth from their fossil fuel consumption.

But to halt climate change, greenhouse gas emissions need to be eliminated, and that likely means a sharp drop in coal-burning in every country.

In order to meet the Paris climate agreement target of limiting warming this century to less than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius), that has to happen fast — far more quickly than what the G7 has promised to do with coal. “2035 is too late,” said Jane Ellis, head of climate policy at the think tank Climate Analytics, in an emailed statement.

Global energy demand is growing and coal could end up feeding that appetite if there aren’t better, cheaper alternatives, particularly for developing countries. Last year, Cui co-authored a report on the state of global coal power. It noted that there are 204 gigawatts of coal power capacity under construction and 353 gigawatts in the planning stages across 38 countries. China and India are already the largest coal consumers in the world, and their energy needs are growing.

Not all of these planned plants, though, will actually come online. The number will depend on economics, energy security concerns, and climate policies. But when faced with challenges like inflation or disruptions in global energy trade, the report notes, countries show “a continued preference for coal over other solutions.”

Coal, for all its flaws, tends to be pretty cheap and bountiful. That’s why it was used to power the industrialization of the global North — and why the global South is still relying on it.

Japan is a case in point. It’s a resource-poor island country, so it imports 94 percent of its energy supplies. That raises costs for households and businesses, and adds more pressure to pick less expensive energy sources.

Chart of Japan’s energy sources shows that 27.4% comes from coal, 38.7% from oil, and 21.1% from natural gas.
International Energy Agency
Japan still gets the vast majority of its energy from fossil fuels.

When a magnitude 9 earthquake shook Japan in 2011 and led to explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Japan idled its fleet of nuclear reactors, which had been providing one-third of its electricity, carbon-free. The country leaned on fossil fuels such as coal to fill the void.

Just last year, the country opened two new coal power generators — an investment that could take decades to pay off. To meet the 2035 target, some of Japan’s coal power plants will shut down ahead of schedule, before they’ve paid off their construction bill, or require costly upgrades with emissions control equipment.

The road ahead is daunting for Japan, and it could easily lose its way.

The G7’s success or failure in meeting climate goals will have global impacts

On the other hand, the wealth, power, and prestige concentrated in the G7 can help spur the new technologies and economies of scale needed to ensure that coal is not the default choice for the world.

Cui noted that the G7 communiqué did set specific targets for other energy sources: The members reaffirmed their ambitions to triple renewable energy deployment, reaching at least 11 terawatt-hours, and deploying 1,500 gigawatts of storage capacity by 2030. They committed to doubling spending on energy grid upgrades to more than $600 billion per year by the end of the decade. By paying these clean energy technologies in bulk when they are more expensive, the G7 can help make them cheaper for other countries.

Japan in particular has long been concerned about what it calls its energy self-sufficiency rate: It produces just 12 percent of its energy within its borders, one of the smallest shares of any wealthy country. To turn the numbers in its favor, Japan is aggressively deploying more renewable energy to boost its independence.

Graph showing renewable energy deployment in Japan. It shows 18% annual growth in renewable energy from 2012 to 2020.
Japan is aiming to ramp up renewable energy deployment to meet its self-sufficiency and climate goals.

Today, Japan gets about 24 percent of its energy from clean sources — such as solar, wind, nuclear, and hydropower — and is aiming to grow that share to 59 percent by 2030, according to a study last year from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The study found that Japan has the technology and know-how to get to 90 percent by 2035 while also reducing energy costs. So, there are encouraging signs that as these power-generation areas grow, the burden to shift away from coal will be less painful.

Yet even as they slowly lose their taste for coal, G7 members are developing a strong liking for natural gas. “In the last decade, gas has been the largest source of the global increase in CO2 emissions, and many G7 governments are investing in new domestic gas facilities,” Ellis said. They’re also sending it abroad. The US, the world’s largest natural gas producer, expects to double its natural gas exports by 2030 even as it aims to ratchet down domestic greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide can linger in the atmosphere for centuries, so the emissions today will shape the climate for years to come.

The G7 countries have the money and means to adapt to many of the worst impacts of climate change, but many of the less-wealthy nations do not. Without even more aggressive action from the biggest polluters in the world, the people who contributed the least to climate change will stand to suffer the most.

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