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In Ukraine, burning coal is not the issue at the moment: the arsonists of war are 

Ukraine's post-war reconstruction will require huge amounts of energy. The country has large coal resources, a highly polluting fuel that generates greenhouse gases. Ukrainian journalist Serhii Shevchenko believes that the filtering system used in Japanese power stations could provide inspiration – and guarantee the country's energy autonomy while limiting carbon emissions.

Germany will bring three mothballed coal-fired power plants back into operation, writes Bloomberg. This news reminded me of a conversation with a public figure who gave a Ukrainian journalist (the author of this article) a “tour” of environmental protection in Tokyo in the summer of 2022.

Junichi Kowaka is a Japanese specialist in food safety and public health. He said: “If the coal industry in the European Union invests in a campaign to clean up the smoke from coal combustion, there will be no damage to the environment. But there will be damage to the aggressor state.” Mr Kowaka was of course referring to Russia‘s aggression in Ukraine, which has sparked a large-scale war on the European continent and has caused Russia to fall under economic sanctions.

Behind the seemingly simple advice is a study based on the practical decisions and actions of a major Japanese coal company interested in solving energy problems. Junichi Kowaka believed that Europeans should pay attention to something that might make it easier to support Ukraine in times of war. Kowaka is a resident of Saitama, a city of one million in the Tokyo metropolitan area, and editor of the monthly publication Safety of Our Food and Life (published in Japanese only).

After the Russian army’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moscow was subjected to punitive sanctions on its energy trade. And after the attacks on Ukrainian nuclear power plants, civilised humanity, at least in the Old World, is slowly returning “from the gas era to the coal era” – even if only temporarily or partially. This forced shift should rid the world of its dependence on the energy resources of a state that commits war crimes, believes the Japanese expert. In this way, we can safely switch from using gas, including for electricity generation, to other fossil fuels which Europeans have been abandoning in recent years for environmental reasons.

Germany is reopening a number of coal and oil-fired power plants from 2022 and will continue to operate some others, despite the Olaf Scholz government’s master plan to reduce domestic carbon emissions. The UK, Austria, Poland and a number of other countries are also looking at coal mining and burning, given the significant reduction in gas supplies from the east. This mineral is known to produce hazardous combustion products such as lead, sulphur, formaldehyde, etc. But for now, the acts of the war arsonists are clearly a greater threat to humankind’s survival.

Smoke… without smoke

During the trip to Tokyo, Junichi Kowaka drew my attention to a light grey building with a tall chimney. “This is a waste incinerator,” he said.  We got out  of the car to walk around the facility, which is located in the middle of a dense residential area.

I immediately thought of the Energia plant, a well-known enterprise in Kyiv, on the outskirts of the Pozniaky residential area. It also has a chimney and burns garbage every day. And when the plant is in operation and the wind turns towards the capital, it is difficult for people to breathe the polluted air. Because of the stench, the residents of the neighbourhood close their windows tightly and try to avoid going outside.

Driving up to the Japanese plant, I personally verified that the facility was functioning, with workers walking around and a truck manoeuvring. Outside near the playground, I didn’t smell any unpleasant odours. I drove around within a block of the plant, passing an adjacent sports facility (with a swimming pool) – and the air there was quite normal despite the scorching sunny day. I took photos of the factory’s chimney and asked my guide why there was no smoke. Could it be that the harmful emissions blow out at night, when people are sleeping?

“Japanese waste incinerators and coal-fired power plants do not smoke in a way that you can see,” Junichi Kowaka explained. “The emissions are cleaned up very thoroughly using the latest technology. So any possible whitish ‘smoke’ from the factory chimneys is just water vapour. Since 1968, Japan has had a law on air pollution control. It regulates not only coal-fired power generation, but also any industrial activity involving waste. And the requirements have only become stricter since then.”

I asked for more information about the plant, which was built more than a quarter of a century ago. It burns garbage, generates electricity and channels its excess heat to, for example, warming up local swimming pools. Its self-regulation of gas emissions is even stricter than required by law. The incinerator’s particulate pollution is less than one-fifth of the national limit. If the amount exceeds a quarter of the limit, the plant must be shut down, the operators say. The plant’s contribution to global warming is minimal.

No harm to the environment – but some to the aggressor

Then my Japanese colleague uttered the words for which this article was written. If the European Union’s coal industry invests in a campaign to clean up the smoke from coal burning, there will be less damage to the environment and more damage to the aggressor state’s economy due to the sanctions. In his opinion, coal-fired power plants should be modernised rather than scrapped. Many countries are gradually abandoning coal-fired power plants, but this is not essential – it is simply necessary to remove carbon particles from emissions as much as possible.

Coal is used in many industries, so it is important to regulate emissions and eliminate harmful particulate matter. China, for example, experienced a lot of problems with coal, especially a few decades ago. Yet Japan can provide appropriate mitigation technologies to any country in the world. These can, for instance, significantly improve the quality of life of people suffering from respiratory and allergic conditions who live near power plants and factories.

“Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, but it’s the black dust contained in smoke emissions that actually overheats the planet,” he emphasised. “When you’re travelling to Haneda Airport, take a picture of all the chimneys you see from the train window – they are smoke-free. Show the real situation with this industry – then there will be less criticism of coal burning. And the European Union’s countermeasures, i.e., its refusal to buy energy from Moscow, will work to save Ukraine.”

The conclusion of our conversation came naturally, and it is not so unexpected. The black misdeeds of the Kremlin are worse than black coal itself. It is this criminal regime that now poses a significant threat to civilisation. There should be no place on earth for the ideology that Ukrainians rightly identify as hateful racism. Without racism, the world will become a cleaner place.

Serhiy Shevchenko

Translated by Harry Bowden

This article has been updated in December 2023. An older version of it was published at VectorNews.
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