TOKYO: More than 20 countries agreed to phase out coal power at the UN climate talks in Glasgow, but not Japan - a "leap backwards" for a country that once led the way on the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The pact was among a raft of pledges made at the COP26 summit in the last week. Japan, the world's third-biggest importer of the dirtiest fossil fuel, declined to sign because it needed to preserve all its options for power generation, officials said.
Critics called that short-sighted, even as new the prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has agreed to step up other environmental measures.
"Despite Prime Minister Kishida pledging to direct increased funding to climate finance, we are disappointed that he failed to address the elephant in the room - Japan's dependency on coal," said Eric Christian Pedersen, head of responsible investments at Danish fund manager Nordea Asset Management.
The criticism highlights the shift in Japan's circumstances. It led climate change efforts during the 1990s Kyoto Protocol era, but has been burning more coal and other fossil fuels after the Fukushima disaster 10 years ago left many nuclear plants idle.
Not phasing out coal has "positioned Japan to take a leap backwards by signalling thermal power plants can keep running based on new technologies that do not exist", said Kiran Aziz, head of responsible investments at KLP, Norway's largest pension fund.
China, the world's biggest source of climate change-fuelling gases, did not sign the pact and President Xi Jinping did not attend the conference. The country has said it would reduce its use of coal for electricity by 1.8 per cent over the next five years.
Japan has pledged billions of dollars for vulnerable countries and to support building infrastructure in Asia for renewables and cleaner-burning fuels. It has also cut targets for coal use and raised those for renewables.
"In Japan, where resources are scarce and the country is surrounded by the sea, there is no single perfect energy source," Noboru Takemoto, an industry ministry deputy director, told Reuters. "For this reason, Japan does not support the statement on coal".
The ministry said last year it would accelerate shutdowns of coal-fired plants by 2030, later setting minimum efficiency standards and requiring companies to submit annual updates on phase-outs.
But companies are resisting such plans, a senior executive at a major Japanese generator said.
"It is being delayed and dragged out because a lot of companies are saying these units still work and are cheaper," the executive said, adding that "a leadership push is needed".
A Reuters survey of Japanese companies operating old coal power units, including Hokuriku Electric Power and Hokkaido Electric Power, showed that most of them have not decided schedules to shut them down.
Hokuriku Electric plans to shut just one 250-megawatt coal unit in 2024, a spokesperson told Reuters,
"Our coal-fired thermal power plants play an important role in maintaining stable electricity supplies", the spokesperson said.
Hokkaido Electric, which shut two coal units in 2019, has no closings planned, while the other five companies surveyed said they have no firm proposals. Some are looking at using cleaner fuels, such as ammonia, to burn with coal and other technologies to keep them operating more cleanly.
"For pro-coal corporate Japan, what's more important is business, not the planet," said Mutsuyoshi Nishimura, a former senior Japanese government official and chief climate change negotiator.
"It's sad to see there is no vision for a better, more sustainable and more competitive Japan."