Kimiko Hirata has spent nearly half her life fighting to wean Japan off its coal addiction, and now is not the time to slow down, warns the award-winning activist.
“I’m hopeful, but we have no time to lose,” said Hirata, international director of the Japanese NGO Kiko Network.
“Our future will be lost if we don’t act now,” she told AFP.
It’s a message Hirata, 50, has long struggled to convey at home in the world’s third-largest economy, which increased its dependence on coal after the 2011 Fukushima disaster that knocked out its nuclear plants.
On Tuesday, the soft-spoken activist received the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work, including blocking new coal-fired power plants in Japan.
The country’s 140 coal-fired power plants produce almost a third of its electricity, second only to liquefied natural gas power plants.
A signatory to the Paris climate accord, Japan was the sixth-largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, and last year the government set a new carbon neutrality target for 2050.
This significantly reinforced Tokyo’s climate commitments and was a “big step forward”, Hirata said.
This comes after years of effort from the Kiko Network – kiko is Japanese for climate.
The Goldman Prize winners said the Kiko Network’s “sophisticated, multi-pronged national anti-coal campaign”, launched in 2011, helped block a third of 50 new coal projects.
The work led by Hirata prevented “the emission of 42 million tonnes of CO2 per year”, they added.
– ‘Hit by lightning’ –
Hirata is modest about his achievements, citing grassroots efforts, and warning that more is needed.
“I think (our work) helped to curb it to some extent,” she said in her office in Tokyo.
“But there are more coal-fired plants than before, so in a broader sense we still face challenges and haven’t won a victory yet.”
Although she dedicated her adult life to fighting climate change, Hirata had no particular interest in environmental issues as a child.
Born in southern Kumamoto prefecture, she was 20 years old and studying education when she attended an environmental lecture which she says made her feel “like I had been struck by the lightning”.
“I was in shock when I realized humans were harming the earth,” she said.
“We lived this carefree life, without any sense of guilt.”
But despite growing environmental interest, deepened by reading former US Vice President Al Gore’s book “Earth in the Balance,” she first went to work for a publisher.
Not knowing how to translate her environmental interests into a career, she decided to intern at a climate NGO in the United States.
It was a leap of faith, and especially since internet access was limited at the time, so she chose her target organization by leafing through a directory of American NGOs in a local library.
– ‘I have hope’ –
After a year in the United States, she returned to Tokyo at the time of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set binding emission reduction targets for wealthy countries.
But while Japan hosted the conference that led to the deal, it found its society “firmly resistant to change” on environmental issues.
Since founding the Kiko network in 1998, she has fought what she sees as a tendency in Japanese society to avoid anything seen as disrupting the status quo.
“People may complain about politics at home, but they don’t act,” she said.
“We are bred not to express different opinions.”
But Japan cannot afford that thinking, she warns, especially given its exposure to the effects of climate change, including stronger typhoons and heavy rains that have caused deadly flooding.
“We have to change our way of thinking otherwise young people will become the victims” of climate change, she says.
There are encouraging signs, she said, including new commitments from local businesses in the wake of Japan’s new carbon neutral goal.
Engineering giant Toshiba announced it would stop building new coal-fired power plants and switch to renewables, and automakers including Honda and Toyota announced new targets for electric or battery-powered cars. carbon neutral fuel and production lines.
“If we act now, we can still do it, so I’m hopeful,” she said.
“It’s a question of whether we can deliver results, and that, I think, is a challenge.”
© 2021 AFP