By shifting away from financing risky coal plants, Japan can make real inroads to addressing energy poverty and become a larger force in the booming clean energy market.
As President Obama begins his visit to Japan, 33 environmental groups from 19 countries around the world released an open letter calling on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to align Japan's overseas investments with the international community and end support for coal plants.
While other countries are responding to calls from scientists, health professionals, and environmentalists to turn away from this dirty fuel in favor of clean energy alternatives, Japan continues to support coal.
With USD $11.9 billion in financing since 2007, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) is the world's number one public financier of overseas coal.
The fourth largest financier is another publicly funded Japanese institution, the Nippon Export and Investment Insurance (NEXI).
The world pulls back - except Japan
Even the world's second and third largest public coal financiers, the US Export-Import Bank and the World Bank, initiated new policies in 2013 to stop the flow of money to coal plants except in rare circumstances.
As the letter explains: "Coal is at the core of many problems we face today. Not only is coal a key contributor to climate change, but people across the world are rising up in protest as soot, mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other deadly pollutants from coal-fired power plants put the lives of millions of people in nearby communities at risk."
In response to this grassroots pressure, documented harm, and the growing threat of climate disruption, President Obama called for an end to financing of overseas coal in his Climate Action Plan last summer.
Since then, the Nordic Countries, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands pledged to join the effort. And publicly funded multilateral development banks - including the World Bank, European Investment Bank, and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development - have finalized new policies to end support for coal plants.
Coal has no place in a carbon constrained world
Coal is one of the single greatest threats to climate stability. In order to halt climate disruption we must shift towards clean energy and efficiency.
The Japanese government often claims it is helping these efforts by calling for state-of-the-art coal technology, but there is simply no way to make a coal plant clean.
As the letter points out: "During the Warsaw 2013 UNFCCC COP, 27 leading climate and energy scientists from 15 countries issued a joint statement that burning just 26% of the world's known coal reserves would break the global ‘carbon budget,' and further stated that ‘there is no room in the remaining carbon budget for building unabated coal power plants, even highly efficient ones.'"
The rise of clean energy
The good news is that the key to fighting climate disruption is also the key to ending energy poverty.
Currently, over one billion people worldwide lack access to electricity, and according to the International Energy Agency, if we are ever going to reach universal energy access, the majority of investments must go towards clean, off-grid, and mini-grid projects.
This is technology that can be deployed today, without forcing communities to wait years for grid extensions that may never arrive.
Renewables are as cost effective - and sometimes more cost effective - in a growing number of markets, including in Europe and North America. Meanwhile, coal is proving to be an increasingly risky investment, with projects worldwide facing financial difficulties.
Japan must shift its coal billions to clean energy
By shifting away from financing risky coal plants, Japan can make real inroads to addressing energy poverty and become a larger force in the booming clean energy market. But first it must let go of its outdated alliance to the coal industry.
Luckily, Japan still has the chance change course. Prime Minister Abe can use President Obama's visit as an opportunity to join the US and the broader international movement to end financing for overseas coal projects and unite with global allies to support clean energy.
And that's a solution the world can get behind.
Read: the Open Letter to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Also on The Ecologist: 'Big Coal's annus horribilis' by Bob Burton
Nicole Ghio is a campaign representative on the Sierra Club's international team where she leads their work with overseas grassroots partners, including running international organizing trainings, facilitating exchanges between coal affected regions, and documenting impacts in front-line communities. She received a Bachelors degree from UCLA and Masters from the University of Sussex.