Kimiko Hirata Takes on Coal

2021 Goldman Prize winner helped prevent a surge of new coal-fired power plants in Japan.

Kimiko Hirata was in Tokyo on the afternoon of March 11, 2011, when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake shook the seabed off the country’s northeastern coast. The quake, the largest recorded in Japanese history, lasted six minutes and stirred up waves 100 feet tall. Thirty minutes later, those waves crashed into the coast and devastated cities. In all, 20,000 people lost their lives. Many more were displaced.

Kiriko Hirata, who helped defeat 13 planned coal plants in Japan, is one of this year’s six Goldman Environmental Prize recipients. Photo courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.

The impact of the tsunami didn’t end there. At the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in the country’s Fukushima Prefecture, waves overtook the plant’s seawall and flooded its reactors. Nuclear meltdowns followed, along with hydrogen explosions and radiation contamination. Officials evacuated the area, shut down the plant, and soon halted all nuclear power plants across the country — essentially kicking the legs out from under Japan’s energy supply, which relied heavily on nuclear power.

During the tragedy of the tsunami, Hirata, who was safe from the destruction, didn’t then realize that the ensuing energy crisis would mark a pivotal moment in her career as a climate activist — one that forced her to focus her efforts on the coal industry that swooped in to take nuclear’s place. By 2015, 50 new coal-fired power plants had been proposed throughout Japan. While policymakers considered coal plants as safer, more reliable sources of energy, Hirata saw them as retractions of the country’s previous climate goals. So she mobilized a team and vowed to stop them.

At the time, Hirata had already served as international director for the environmental nonprofit Kiko Network for more than a decade. Much of her work stems from her longtime commitment to advancing Japan’s climate agenda.

Born in Kumamoto on one of Japan’s southern islands, Hirata first discovered her interest in climate change as a student in Tokyo in the 1990s. Like many others at the time, she had caught news headline as delegates from the United Nations began discussing a set of emissions goals that would eventually be known as the Kyoto Protocol.

After school, Hirata got a job in publishing, but she was never able to “overlook the issue” of climate change. “I felt like I wanted to do something. I wanted to dedicate my time to tackling this issue,” she says. So she traveled to Washington DC to intern at the Climate Institute, volunteer with the National Wildlife Federation, and network her way through DC’s nonprofit sector. Her goal: She wanted to learn everything she could about nonprofit management to take back to Japan. “Someone has to take that role,” she says, “so I thought I would be the one to do that.”

Back in Japan, Hirata became a founding member of the Kiko Forum, a citizens’ forum organized for a year leading up to the 1997 meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Kyoto. Once the Kyoto Protocol was signed, Hirata and other members of the Kiko Forum formed the Kiko Network to hold Japan accountable to its carbon emissions goals, while pushing for climate taxes and other progressive climate policies.

But that proved to be a difficult task. “We were totally outside the policymaking process,” says Hirata. “We hit a series of barriers.” In 2009, for instance, Hirata led a widespread campaign to adopt a climate change act in Japan modeled after the 2008 Climate Change Act in the United Kingdom, which set a legally binding emissions target. She got petitions signed, and mobilized hundreds of local leaders and universities in support. But the campaign failed. “I tried to get something out of my continuous efforts, but it was really difficult,” she says.

The tsunami marks a clear before-and-after for Hirata. In the aftermath of Fukushima, the surge in coal investment spurred Hirata into a refocused fight against coal. Her first step: She pored through newspapers, government and industry documents, and made a list of all the proposed coal-fired power plants. She then mobilized a team of experts and environmentalists — including members of Greenpeace and researchers from Oxford and Harvard universities — and conducted an investment and public health risk assessment for the new plants. From these reports, she concluded that the proposed coal plants would cause more than 1,000 premature deaths each year.

Some four years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, 50 new coal-fired power plants had been proposed throughout Japan. Hirata saw them as retractions of the country’s previous climate goals, so she mobilized a team to stop them. Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Now, Hirata is taking her activism further by pushing Japan to phase out coal completely by the end of the decade. Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Hirata also engaged with the press and developed a website to mobilize anti-coal activists. In the communities where many of these coal plants were proposed, including Fukushima, community members spoke at hearings alongside Hirata, with hundreds in attendance. According to Hirata, many of these citizen activists had concerns beyond the climate risk. “Public health and ecosystem protection were issues for many people,” she says. “There were various reasons to mobilize.”

So far, Hirata’s efforts have led to the cancellation of 13 planned coal plants, averting the annual emissions of 42 million tons of carbon. She also put pressure on coal financiers with a 2020 climate resolution calling on private banks to disclose the climate risks of their investments and publish a plan for achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. In response, many Japanese coal developers — like Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Nippon Life, and others — have announced that they will no longer develop or invest in coal plants.

Hirata not only helped stop a coal resurgence in her country but also set a new precedent for the capacity of nonprofit activists in Japan. Now, she is taking her activism further by pushing Japan to phase out coal completely by the end of the decade, while pushing for 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

For halting coal in its tracks, and venturing into the halls of some of the largest Japanese coal finances and convincing them to divest from coal, Hirata has been awarded this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize along with five other activists from across the world. She is the first female recipient from Japan.

The other winners are:

Gloria Majiga-Kamoto of Malawi, who fought the plastics industry in her country and galvanized a grassroots movement in support of a national ban on thin plastics, a type of single-use plastic.

Thai Van Nguyen of Vietnam whose nonprofit Save Vietnam’s Wildlife 1,540 pangolins from the illegal wildlife trade between 2014 and 2020. Nguyen also established Vietnam’s first anti-poaching unit, which, since 2018, has destroyed 9,701 animal traps, dismantled 775 illegal camps, confiscated 78 guns, and arrested 558 people for poaching, leading to a significant decline in illegal activities in Pu Mat National Park.

Maida Bilal of Bosnia and Herzegovina who led a group of women from her village in a 503-day blockade of heavy equipment that resulted in the cancellation of permits for two proposed dams on the Kruščica River in December 2018.

Sharon Lavigne of the United States, a special education teacher turned environmental justice advocate, who led a successful grassroots campaign to stop the construction of a $1.25 billion plastics manufacturing plant alongside the Mississippi River in St. James Parish, Louisiana.

Liz Chicaje Churay of Peru, who spurred the Peruvian government to create Yaguas National Park in January of 2018. The new park, comparable in size to Yellowstone, protects more than two million acres of Amazon rainforest in Peru’s northeastern region of Loreto.

The prize winners will be celebrated at a free, Virtual Award Ceremony today at 4:00 pm PDT (7:00 pm EDT) hosted by award-winning actress and lifelong activist Jane Fonda.

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