‘Our fight is more visible’: Goldman environment prize winners see shift in political winds

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For more than 20 years, Kimiko Hirata has fought a long and often lonely battle against coal in Japan, but for the first time the climate activist believes the dirtiest fossil fuel is on the run, not just in her country but across the world.

Like several other winners of this year’s Goldman environmental prize, the frontline campaigner sees a shift in the political winds that has created a rare – and perhaps final – opportunity to reduce emissions and rebuild the planet’s natural life support systems.

This optimism is based on local victories that prove positive change is possible, along with global shifts driven by activists such as Greta Thunberg, Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election and a flurry of major UN environmental conferences.

For a country like Japan, which is strongly influenced by external trends, this has created a sense of urgency that has been missing in the past.

Kimiko Hirata has campaigned against the use of coal in Japan.

“This is a moment when international momentum is strong. Japan feels it has to be on board,” Hirata told the Guardian ahead of Tuesday’s Goldman award ceremony.

As founder of the Kiko Network, which has been campaigning for emissions reductions since before the Kyoto climate conference of 1997, she sees strong evidence that Japan is at a turning point. One third of planned coal plants have been cancelled. Several major institutions has stopped financing overseas coal projects. The government has also set a net zero target for 2050 and put in place a 2030 reduction target.

“The time to worry about new coal is over,” she said. “I am pretty sure there will be no new projects in Japan and none financed overseas. Finance institutions and trading houses now appreciate the business and reputational risks of coal. They don’t want a downgrade from Moody’s.”

These victories have been a long time coming. Civil society is relatively weak in Japan compared with many European nations. In the past, few NGOs took up the issue and, partly as a result, the public saw global heating as a low priority. Hirata has helped to nudge the issue higher up the political agenda by inviting overseas speakers, organising talks in towns with power plants, and emphasising the dangers of coal. Today, there is a strong anti-coal movement that also includes domestic chapters of international groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

With the direction now set, Hirata is now trying to push her foot on the accelerator.

East Asia’s economic powerhouses have been the leading funder of coal power for many years, but they are increasingly wary about climate risks. South Korea has promised to scale back coal funding. China – which is still by far the biggest user of the fuel and the largest investor in overseas projects – is still a laggard, but Hirata said she was encouraged by Xi Jinping’s recent pledge to reduce coal power.

“Momentum towards coal phase-out is growing worldwide,” she said. “The trend and direction are right. The problem is the speed. Implementation has to follow more quickly after policy shifts. We see lots of vision and policy, but we need a real economic change.”

Construction of the Yokosuka coal-fired power plant is underway near the port of Kurihama on Tokyo Bay.

In Japan, power companies continue to drag their feet and extend the lifespan of existing or under-construction coal plants with dubious promises to upgrade technology. Hirata said the government needed to be firmer in standing up to vested interests to ensure the phase-out was not knocked off track. “That is clearly not the way to a sharp cut by 2030,” she said. “There is no space for greenwashing any more. They must really reduce.”

Utilities such as Tepco, J Power and Chubu Electric are politically influential. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, many turned off reactors and switched on coal plants so they could retain control of the grid. “It’s basically the same business groups and the same large scale so they could maintain their profits. If the government had moved towards wind and solar power, then different companies would be involved, and profits and the scale of each project would be smaller.” Even today, she said, some firms are resisting decarbonisation.

This year’s international meetings, including last weekend’s G7 summit and Cop26 in Glasgow in November will be vital to inject more urgency. “This is an important moment. There won’t be a similar opportunity to raise ambition for some time. Countries have to seriously face the status of the climate and step up significantly,” she said. “I have to be optimistic and count on the leadership of UK government to get a good outcome. It is crucial because there is no time left to solve this problem. If we fail, we may lose the climate fight.”

Anti-coal protesters in at the Yokosuka coal-fired power plant.

For this reason, she is concerned that the UK government is merely reviewing rather than cancelling plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria. As host of Cop26, she feels the UK should set a more positive example. “[The Cumbria plan] isn’t good. From 2017, when the UK launched the Powering Past Coal Alliance, we have seen the UK as a leader in the coal phase-out fight. We need them to be consistent, especially now they are COP president. Any inconsistency in discussions is very, very concerning.”

The importance of a link between global and local action was also stressed by other new Goldman prize winners.

Thai Van Nguyen, a wildlife campaigner in Vietnam, was given the award for his work protecting the pangolin, the world’s most poached and trafficked animal. Since 2018, he has rescued more than 1,000 of the scaly anteaters and established Vietnam’s first anti-poaching unit, which has destroyed thousands of animal traps and arrested 244 illegal hunters. His organisation, Save Vietnam Wildlife, has also launched public education campaigns to highlight the plight of the animals, all six species of which are on the endangered list as a result of strong demand in Chinese traditional medicine.

Thai Van Nguyen with a Sunda pangolin at Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam.

After an 80% fall in poaching at Pumat National Park, Van Nguyen said, the government was now looking into expanding the model across the country. “The pangolin situation in Vietnam is getting better. We are seeing more photos of pangolin in forests from camera traps. We recorded 1,600 pangolins in past seven years. This is a positive,” he said. The challenge now, he said, was stronger enforcement in neighbouring China, which is the biggest market of pangolin scales, meat and blood.

The Covid crisis has provided temporary respite. Illegal trade has fallen because border checks have been tightened and the government in Beijing announced tougher controls on pangolin sales after rumours that the animal was a possible vector for the disease.

Van Nguyen said this year’s UN biodiversity conference in Kunming, China, will be an opportunity to build on these temporary steps. The host nation has banned sales of pangolin meat, but the animal is still approved as an ingredient in traditional medicine. “We’d like them to take more action on that. We hope the problems will be raised in Kunming and more countries will put pressure on China,” he said.

Overall, he felt encouraged that the pandemic had helped to raise public support for nature protection. “I think people are more concerned about the relationship between human health and environmental health. I hope people wake up and take action, so we don’t have another pandemic.”

Guarded optimism was also the message of this year’s winner in Central and South America, Liz Chicaje Churay, with increasing recognition of the role of indigenous people in maintaining forests and other globally-important ecosystems.

Liz Chicaje Churay, a leader of the indigenous Bora community of Loreto, Peru.

Chicaje is a leader of the indigenous Bora community of Loreto, Peru, who has suffered death threats for campaigning for her people’s territory of Yaguas to be recognised as a protected national park.

The remote region contains Amazon rainforest that sprawls over 2m acres and is home to more than 3,000 species of plants, 500 species of birds, and 550 species of fish, as well as manatees, river dolphins and giant otters. In approving the national park status in 2018, the Peruvian government noted the change in status would enable the area to sequester 1.5m tonnes of carbon over the following 20 years.

For Chicaje, this progress at a local level needs to be matched by greater recognition at a global level. The mood, she said, is ripe. “More people are listening now to what indigenous people are doing for forests. But governments need to create more indigenous areas.”

As a delegate to a previous climate conference, she is hopeful that this year’s conferences for biodiversity and climate can make a difference. “I’m feeling optimistic. I think things are going to change. There is more and more news about climate change. Our fight is more visible to the world. Every year, I can tell more people are talking about indigenous communities.”

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