Japan’s coal power policy reflects the country’s highly insufficient level of ambition to avoid the climate crisis


Japan’s reported plans to shut a number of coal plants will make little to no difference in emissions in 2030 compared with its current Paris Agreement target: it’s disappointing that the country’s focus remains on coal rather than pursuing an aggressive renewable energy strategy.

On 3 July 2020, Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), Hiroshi Kajiyama, announced that Japan would develop concrete plans to phase out inefficient coal-fired power plants. He provided few details, but earlier news reports suggested that the government was considering shutting down or mothballing about 100 out of a total of 110 existing inefficient coal plants by 2030.

While this, if true, is a welcome step towards phasing-out coal, our analysis shows that the reported plan would still see upwards of 30 GW of coal power capacity remaining online in Japan in 2030. This would reduce Japan’s 2030 emissions projections only marginally compared to our previous projections based on current policies. This also means that the reported plan would not take Japan beyond the country’s “Highly insufficient” 2030 climate target (nationally determined contribution, or NDC) in the light of fair contributions to limiting warming to the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal of 1.5°C.

Unfortunately, the government plan also suggests an intention to continue investing in new so-called “highly efficient” coal, a type of energy that has no place under the Paris Agreement.

Our calculations indicate that the reported government plan has been carefully crafted to just meet the coal power share under the NDC target (26% in 2030). Our revised GHG projections also indicate that the reported government plan would, if fully implemented, only reduce 2030 emissions by 1% compared to our previous projections.

In order to stay true to its own words to “strive to achieve a ‘decarbonised society’ as close as possible to 2050 with disruptive innovations” in its NDC, Japan needs to completely and quickly phase out coal power and instead further strengthen its investment into low-carbon solutions such as renewables. Such a move is even more important in the post-COVID-19 society as the renewable sector generates more jobs - and increasingly more secure jobs in the coming decades and beyond - than the fossil fuel sector.

The development of a domestic full-fledged coal power phase-out plan in line with the Paris goals, together with the well-designed revision of international coal financing regulations by requiring host countries to set net zero emission targets, could possibly bring Japan back to the centre stage in international climate policy.

Detailed analysis of the Japanese plan

On July 2 2020, media reported that METI was planning to shut down or mothball around 100 out of about 110 existing inefficient coal power plants by 2030. It was also reported that the existing 26 “high efficiency” plants would continue operating and that high efficiency plants currently under construction and planning would move ahead.

How does this translate into electricity generation in 2030?

Our analysis shows that the reported new coal policy would ensure that Japan’s coal-fired power generation would only be reduced to the level indicated in its NDC, but nothing more.

According to the Japan Coal Plant Tracker (last update July 2020), there are 128 coal-fired power plants, totalling 48.9 GW capacity in operation. Of these:

  • 33 plants of total 24.4 GW are “high efficiency” coal-fired power plants, i.e. ultra‑supercritical (USC) or integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), with the first USC plant built in 1993.
  • There are 12 “high efficiency” coal-fired power plants currently under construction or planning, which would add another 8.2 GW capacity.
  • With regard to “inefficient” coal-fired power plants, which we interpret as all conventional technologies other than USC and IGCC, there are seven (total 1.2 GW) that started operating after 2017 and another four (total 0.6 GW) currently under construction or planning.

We consider that these 56 power plants would be operating in 2030 based on the reported government plan, with a combined total of 34.5 GW capacity. While it is not entirely clear from the existing information which inefficient power plants METI plans to keep in 2030, the resulting uncertainty is limited because most of the remaining inefficient plants would be kept as back-up power sources.

If we assume that all these power plants would be in operation in 2030, then they would generate about 225–255 TWh/year in 2030, assuming a 75%–85% capacity factor. These figures do not cover electricity generated by industries for their own consumption (autogeneration). If we further assume coal-fired autogeneration in 2030 to remain at today’s level (about 25 TWh/year in 2018, based on METI statistics), then the total coal-fired generation in 2030 would be around 250–280 TWh/year, which is nearly identical to the projected coal-fired power generation in 2030 under the NDC (1065 TWh/year*26% = 277 TWh/year).

How would greenhouse gas projections change as a result of this new policy?

The emissions projections are lowered by only 1% compared to our December 2019 projections.

Based on the assessment described above, we revised the GHG projections assuming that the share of coal in total electricity generation in 2030 would be kept at 26% as targeted in the NDC.

There are two key factors that affect the emissions projections. The first is on the technology that would fill the electricity generation gap resulting from reduced coal power; our December 2019 update estimated a 27%–31% share of coal in the electricity mix. In the current update, we explored the following two cases:

  • Low emissions case: full nuclear restart (same assumptions as in December 2019 update), coal power share kept to 26%, gas power share also kept to NDC target level (27%, down from 36% in 2018), renewable energy share reaches 26% (exceeding the NDC target);
  • High emissions case: limited nuclear restart with low capacity factor (same assumptions as in December 2019 update), coal power share kept to 26%, renewable energy share reaches 24% (as per IEA WEO 2019, meeting the upper range of the NDC target), gas power reaches 40% to fill the remaining gap.

The second key factor is the average CO2 emission factor of electricity from coal-fired power plants. For 2030, we assume a 5% reduction in average CO2 emission factor per kWh in 2030 compared to 2018 levels as a result of phasing out old and inefficient coal-fired power plants. This estimate is based on the following considerations:

  • USC and IGCC account for roughly 40% of total coal power generation today (authors’ estimate for 2017 based on the USC and IGCC capacities presented above, 80% capacity factor and the IEA 2019 World Energy Balances);
  • Existing USCs are roughly 10% to 15% more efficient than the non-USC (43%–45% compared to 37%–41%, based on the Japan Coal Plant Tracker database). New USCs under construction or planning are expected to be even more efficient;
  • Considering that some non-USCs remain in 2030, the share of coal-fired autogeneration, and that the IEA WEO Current Policies Scenario on which the CAT projections are based includes power generation from coal-derived products, we estimated that, on average, the CO2 emission factor will improve by about 5%.

The resulting CO2 emissions factor in 2030 is less than 2% lower than that in the December 2019 update, taken directly from the IEA WEO 2019 Current Policies Scenario projections.

The revised GHG emissions projections for 2030 after consideration of the two key factors were found to be 12–13 MtCO2e/year (or 1%) lower than the December 2019 projections, ranging at 1,043–1,096 MtCO2e/year. It is important to note that these revised projections do not account for the impact of COVID-19.

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