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December 02, 2014

Holiday Season Brings Big Developments For International Coal Financing

Coal picWhile we were celebrating the start of the holiday season last week, there were a lot of big developments around the world to be thankful for, and a few to be wary of.

As the world turns its eyes to Lima for the COP20 climate negotiations, which kicked off on Monday, France decided it was not going to wait until next year’s negotiations in Paris to show leadership. President Francois Hollande announced an end to export credit financing for coal, making France the latest domino to fall as countries and banks commit to ending support for this deadly fossil fuel, whose pollution kills up to 100,000 people in India and 250,000 people in China every year. With policies in place at the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Nordic countries, and the Netherlands, the pressure is mounting on the rest of the world’s major economies comprising the UN’s Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to make a commitment before Paris.

But while France is stepping up, Japan is once again falling behind. It appears Japan has not learned its lesson from the fight over the Batang coal plant in Central Java, Indonesia. There, strong local opposition to this plant backed by the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) has delayed construction over two years as residents refuse to sell their land as they protest the project. Even still, both JBIC and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) are reported as possible financiers of Sumitomo Corporation’s proposed 4,000 MW coal-fired power plant in Andhra Pradesh, India. Reports from the ground indicate Baruva village is under consideration as a possible site, despite the fact it is located near Sompeta -- the village that “launched” the anti-coal movement in India when over 3,000 people rose up to stop a coal plant. A resulting crackdown by police and security forces left three community members dead yet stiffened the resistance of citizens who are standing up to coal -- meaning Japanese investors may be picking another fight they will have trouble winning.

But Japanese institutions aren’t just supporting coal plants that threaten the land, air and water of communities in India and Indonesia; the nation is attempting to claim that these projects actually benefit the climate. Around $1 billion that Japan has pledged under a U.N. initiative to help developing countries fight global warming has actually gone to support Japanese coal-fired power plants in Indonesia, despite the fact that coal is the most carbon intensive fuel in the world. U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres has said that such unabated coal projects have "no room in the future energy system.” But the Japanese government isn’t just denying any wrongdoing - it’s denying justice to the people in villages like those in Cirebon who have lost their livelihoods to these coal projects.

Perhaps most disappointing, though, is the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) and its Chairman Fred Hochberg, which appear ready to flout President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and its pledge to end financing for overseas coal.

It has been over two years since media reports linked Ex-Im to Adani’s plans to open up Australia’s Galilee Basin to coal mining. Its an effort that would require shipping coal by rail to the coast, and dredging and dumping waste in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage site in order to expand ports and channels for shipping the coal to India. Sound absurd? You’re not the only one that thinks so. Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC, Barclays, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan Chase have all publicly stated they will not finance the project due to poor economics and environmental concerns surrounding the plan.

Ex-Im? Not so much.

This taxpayer-backed bank has apparently renewed its interested in the project. Now that the State Bank of India (SBI) is considering financing a $1 billion loan to Adani, new reports are again tieing the U.S. government institution to the proposed mining project.  The SBI loan is already raising allegations of crony capitalism, given the strong connection between the Adanis and new Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the objections of Indian MPs who have said the project is not viable.

Of course, Ex-Im has repeatedly shown it has no problem financing projects connected to massive human rights and environmental violations -- and this wouldn’t even be the first time it supported a project in the Great Barrier Reef plagued by legal controversies.

But Japan and Ex-Im are swimming against the tide. Other news coming out last week shows coal is on its way out. In addition to France’s commitment to end financing for overseas coal, KLP -- Norway’s largest pension fund manager with assets close to $70 billion --  announced it was divesting from 27 coal companies. At the same time, Germany’s largest utility, E.ON, announced plans to sell off its coal and gas units to focus on renewables.

While Japan and Ex-Im are considering pouring even more money into a coal industry that’s on its last legs, all the signs show the smart money is going toward renewables. That’s something to be thankful for.

-- Justin Guay, Associate Director, International Climate Program, and Nicole Ghio, Sierra Club International Climate Program

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