Kimiko Hirata, Japanese anti-coal activist, “no time to lose”

She has already dedicated almost half of her life to fighting coal addiction in her country, Japan, but Kimiko Hirata has no desire to stop because she has no “time to lose”.

“I have hope,” but “our future will disappear if we don’t act now,” Ms. Hirata, 50, who received the 2021 Goldman Environment Award for the Asian zone on Tuesday.

This message, the international director of the Japanese climate NGO Kiko Network, is constantly trying to imprint in the consciousness of Japan, the third largest economy in the world and the fifth largest country emitting CO2 in 2019, according to the Global Carbon Atlas platform.

The Japanese archipelago has significantly increased its dependence on coal since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Today, 140 coal-fired power plants in the country produce almost a third of electricity. The second source of energy is behind liquefied natural gas (LNG).

But Japan, a signatory to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, pledged last year to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, a “big step forward,” Ms. Hirata welcomed.

Organizers of the Goldman Award on Tuesday praised the national anti-coal campaign Ms. Hirata launched with Kiko Network in 2011, which helped cancel 13 of 50 new coal-fired energy projects.

This success is particularly noticeable in Japan, where NGOs are “weak and are not highly valued by political and economic leaders,” the Goldman award statement said.

– ‘Thunder touched’ –

But Ms. Hirata is not the one resting on her laurels: “There are more coal-fired power plants than before, so overall (…) we haven’t won yet.”

Born in the Kumamoto department (southwestern Japan), Kimiko Hirata discovered the cause of the environment at the age of 20 during a conference on the subject that upset her while she was studying education.

“It was like I was struck by lightning. I was very shocked when I realized that people were abusing the Earth,” she said.

Despite her growing interest in the planet, she first worked at a publishing house before venturing into an internship at an environmental NGO in the United States.

A year later, it returned to Japan, at the time of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the first international climate agreement, with greenhouse gas reduction commitments for industrialized signatory countries.

But even though the conference that led to the agreement was held in Japan, the Japanese company was “stubbornly resistant to change” on environmental issues, according to Ms. Hirata.

– Status quo that has become impossible –

Since the birth of the Kiko Network in 1998, which she helped found, Ms. Hirata has struggled with a tendency she notices in Japanese society to ignore anything that could disrupt the status quo.

Kimiko Hirata, International Director of the Japanese climate NGO Kiko Network, during an interview with AFP on June 7, 2021 in Tokyo (AFP – Charly TRIBALLEAU)

“People can complain about politics at home, but they don’t work,” she laments. “We’ve been taught not to express different opinions.”

But Japan can no longer allow such thinking, she warns, especially as the country is not spared the effects of global warming, with more powerful typhoons and often fatal floods.

However, there are reasons for hope, such as the multiplication of commitments made by large Japanese companies regarding the energy transition.

For example, automotive giant Toyota, last week achieved its carbon neutrality target for its production by 2035, compared to the previous 2050.

Many Japanese energy groups, including the country’s three major banks, have announced they will no longer develop or finance new coal-fired power plant projects, retaining their existing commitments in this segment.

“If we act now, we can still be successful, so I hope so,” Ms. Hirata insists.

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