Goldman Prize winner Kimiko Hirata on blocking 13 coal plants in Japan

Kimiko Hirata has blocked 13 new coal plants in Japan, but she hasn’t done it alone. The 2021 Goldman Prize winner tells us about her movement.

In Japan, few environmental activists – and few women – can say that they’ve been able to directly influence government policy, especially in matters of energy. Kimiko Hirata is one of them. For having “fought to prevent the construction of 13 coal plants and won” and avoided millions of tonnes of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere, Hirata, a key figure in her country’s anti-coal movement, is the first Japanese woman to win the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Kimiko Hirata, Goldman Environmental Prize, japan
Kimiko Hirata is one of the founding members and international director of the Kiko Network, as well as the 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for islands and island states © Goldman Environmental Prize

Who is Kimiko Hirata, 2021 Goldman Prize winner

Like many in her generation, Hirata’s destiny changed thanks to Al Gore. After reading his book Earth in the Balance in the 1990s, Hirata decided to dedicate herself fully to the fight against climate change, travelling to the United States to find out more about the environmental movement there. Having returned to Japan, she participated in the 1997 Kyoto Summit and the process that led to the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement to limit CO2 emissions.

This key milestone marked the beginning of Hirata’s long journey. The year after the summit, she founded Kiko Network, a Japanese NGO fighting against global warming, of which she is currently the international director. Furthermore, Hirata’s campaign took on an even more profound meaning in 2011, when Japan’s future changed forever.

Fukushima and the anti-coal movement

The events unleashed by the earthquake and tsunami of 11th March 2011 are well known. 500 kilometres of land in the northeastern region of Tōhoku were inundated, 20,000 human lives were washed away and the tsunami caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster. On top of the evacuation of tens of thousands of people – many of whom haven’t returned even 10 years later – the calamity forced the government to suspend all nuclear power plants in Japan, which at the time supplied a quarter of the country’s electricity.

In their place, a substantial return to the most dangerous energy source on the planet – coal – was decided. Alarmed by these events, Hirata together with the Kiko Network launched a campaign against coal because “unlike nuclear, people weren’t aware of the risks associated to coal,” she tells us. Coal, in fact, emits double the amount CO2 compared to other fossil fuels and is the biggest single threat to our climate. However, the Japanese government proceeded with filling the void left by the Fukushima incident by planning the construction of 50 new coal plants by 2015.

Japan thus became the world’s fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter, third coal importer and the only G7 country with so many coal projects in the pipeline.

Kimiko Hirata’s campaign against coal

To stop these regressive and dangerous policies, Kiko Network has mounted a national and international campaign, creating alliances with local communities where coal plants were destined to be built. Hirata has intervened personally in public meetings to oppose such projects and support citizens in making their voices heard. The alliance has also involved scientists, lawyers, journalists, as well as other NGOs, including international ones. Together with Greenpeace, for example, Kiko Network published an important report in 2016, the first to reveal how the planned coal plants would have led to a thousand premature deaths in Japan every year.

G7, pikachu, carbone, giappone
Campaigners dressed as Pikachu appeal directly to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the G7 Summit in the UK to abandon coal © Hugh Hastings/Getty Images

The fruits of Hirata and her movement’s labour came in 2019, with the cancellation of 13 new coal plants planned to be built all over Japan. In this way, 42 million tonnes of CO2 a year were avoided, or the equivalent of the emissions caused by 7.5 million cars every year for forty years. And in 2021, Hirata was instrumental in creating a climate resolution against the financial group Mizuho – the first of its kind in Japan – asking that the Japanese financial colossus publish the climate impact of its investments in fossil fuels, including coal, and its commitment to decarbonise. Though the resolution was rejected by Mizuho’s shareholders, a third of them voted in favour of it and it paved the way for a dozen Japanese companies to announce that they’ll no longer be supporting new coal developments.

Important gains that have further spurred Hirata, Kiko Network and Climate Action Network Japan, which Hirata’s organisation is part of, to continue in their fight for the climate. If on the one hand Japan aims to reduce its net emissions to zero, the roadmap for doing so is anything but set. Activists are asking the world’s third economy to abandon coal entirely by 2030 and complete its transition to renewable energy by 2050. As Hirata tells us, there’s still a lot of work ahead.

What role have local people played as advocates of the anti-coal movement in Japan?
The role of local people and local resistance has been crucial. It’s difficult to have a direct impact on government policy in Japan, so Kiko Network took the approach to talk to individuals – community leaders, professors, experts – to create a voice for change. The collaboration, support and engagement from local people, NGOs and institutions created local movements, amplified the impact of our anti-coal movement, and ultimately helped us to achieve stopping 13 new coal power projects in Japan.

Is there a sense that the anti-coal movement is succeeding where the anti-nuclear movement failed, given Japan’s decision to restart its nuclear reactors?
The anti-nuclear campaign hasn’t failed: the majority of Japanese people strongly oppose reliance on nuclear. The anti-coal movement is partly supported by anti-nuclear campaigns too. This put the nuclear industry and the government in a difficult situation in bringing sufficient numbers of reactors back online. But we had to build a new movement on coal, because unlike nuclear people weren’t aware of the risks associated with coal. The sustainable energy path in Japan requires the complete phase out of coal by 2030, along with the phase out of nuclear at the same time. This is not an easy task, but the potential here is huge – across solar, wind and geothermal sources – so I remain hopeful that a swift shift is possible.

manifestazione contro il carbone in Giappone
Protesters in the Philippines demand that Japan abandon coal © Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Do you think the financial world is living up to the challenge of climate change?
The momentum toward decarbonisation is clearly growing in the financial sector, but financial companies and national and global public policy need to do more to align public and private finances with the goal of the Paris Agreement, which is to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. It’s been said that investments in fossil fuel supply projects need to be stopped now if we want to achieve this limit. Both the private and public sectors must double down on efforts to accelerate their finance away from fossil fuels.

What can environmental activists around the world learn from your own battle against coal in Japan?
As a Japanese NGO, with a team of less than ten people or so, we fought and managed to have an impact on coal power expansion in Japan. It may seem difficult to change electricity supply systems through individual actions. But our work had power as we were supported by people in local communities, experts and NGOs. To save our climate, we need systemic change, and we need people to take part in it. Time is short to avoid a climate catastrophe. So it’s important that each of us to finds out what we can do, who we need to talk to, how we can build partnerships and coalitions, and use this collective voice to realise the changes we want. It’s not just individual small actions, such as saving electricity etc. There’s a lot one individual can do.

Kimiko Hirata, Goldman Environmental Prize, giappone
Kimiko Hirata and the Kiko Network have built their campaign on alliances with local communities and other NGOs © Goldman Environmental Prize

What are your hopes for the upcoming COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland? Do you think Japan’s political leaders are fit to face this challenge and, more broadly, that of climate change?
2050 net zero is becoming the mainstream in Japan, but the pathway to achieve it hasn’t yet been designed. Many corporations aren’t ready to shift their businesses to decarbonisation either. I hope the COP26 becomes a high political moment to increase ambition to collectively achieve the net zero goal and create a strong international trend to strengthen policies and accelerate actions. It would be an opportunity for Japan to join the global effort and play an important role globally. Japan should fully prepare for it through strengthened policies, including the commitment to phase out coal by 2030.

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