By Yuka Obayashi
TOKYO (Reuters) - A decision by Japan's environment ministry to abandon its opposition to building new coal-fired power stations casts doubt on the industry's ability to meet targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, experts and environmental activists said.
The environment ministry's recent reversal puts Japan further out of step with other industrialized economies that have been restricting coal to meet commitments on carbon emissions agreed between 200 nations in Paris two months ago.
The power industry accounts for 40 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions.
The environment ministry issued rare objections to five new coal-fired stations last year but has been pushed by the powerful industry ministry to accept voluntary steps by power companies to curb emissions.
As Japan gets ready to open up its power retail market in April, companies are rushing to build 43 coal-fired plants or 20.5 gigawatt of capacity in coming years, about a 50 percent increase. [L3N1612RS]
"Global opinion is increasingly shifting away from coal but Japan's environmental ministry is switching sides to approve new coal power plants. This runs counter to the global action," said Kimiko Hirata international director of lobby group Kiko Network.
As part of the agreement, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is set to tighten its rules over coal-fired power stations from April 1, including issuing new non-binding requirements on the heat efficiency of new and existing plants to curb emissions. [L3N15Y2LY]
"We will also monitor and check annually on progress. If we find the power industry cannot reach its goal, we will consider new measures," Environment Minister Tamayo Marukawa said this month after meeting with industry minister Motoo Hayashi to thrash out an agreement.
Coal is attractive because it is the cheapest fossil fuel source and prices have slumped in recent years. Japan has turned to the energy source in record amounts since the Fukushima disaster in 2011 led to the shutdown of reactors.
A group of 36 power companies, which supply 99 percent of the country's electricity, have also formed a new body to take measures to trim emissions and meet the industry's voluntary goal to cut emissions by 35 percent in 2030, compared with 2013.
"I'm not convinced that these steps to be taken by the industry ministry will ensure the power industry achieves its 2030 goal," said Yukari Takamura, professor at Graduate School of Environmental Studies at Nagoya University, citing a lack of specific milestones between now and 2030.
(Reporting by Yuka Obayashi; Editing by Aaron Sheldrick and Richard Pullin)