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Japan’s divestment campaign pits Buddhist priest against banks via NBC News

In the wake of Fukushima, Tomonobu Narita is at the forefront of a movement to withdraw money from banks that back environmentally harmful energy projects.

YOKOHAMA, Japan — Buddhist priest Tomonobu Narita admits he hadn’t thought much about energy policy until the Fukushima nuclear meltdown forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes in 2011.

Now he’s at the forefront of a budding movement in Japan to withdraw money from banks that provide finance for environmentally harmful energy projects.

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The campaign to “divest” from fossil fuelssuch as coal has gained traction in the United States, Europe and Australia in recent years, but environmental activists are now targeting Japan. They see the country as crucial to the success of international efforts to address climate change.

On top of fossil fuels — which release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when burned, contributing to global warming — campaigners here are working to oppose nuclear power.

While advocates of nuclear power say it can provide carbon emissions-free energy, critics say the overall dangers are too high.

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Driven by concern about nuclear power, Narita recently shifted some of his temple’s funds to a financial firm that is rated as one of Japan’s 45 “earth-friendly” banks. This means the bank is not known to provide finance for the fossil fuel and nuclear sectors.

Narita told NBC News he planned to explain the decision to his counterparts in other temples, believing that “we need to be more mindful of what we’re blessed with.”

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In the next room, about 100 people gathered to hear from the veteran American climate campaigner Bill McKibben, who co-founded the global divestment movement known as 350.org and has organized climate rallies around the world.

McKibben described being jolted into action by a visit to Bangladesh more than a decade ago when he saw people die from dengue — a mosquito-borne viral illness that is projected to worsen in that country as the globe warms. McKibben said he viewed it as “very unfair” that Bangladesh would bear major impacts from climate change when it had not been the source of most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

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Now, McKibben said, it was important for the divestment movement to spread to Japan “because Japanese banks are now the biggest lenders of money for coal projects around the world.”

Japan’s Mizuho provided an estimated $11.5 billion in loans to the world’s top coal-plant developers from January 2014 to September 2017, according to analysis published by BankTrack, a pro-renewable energy network. That led to Mizuho being assessed as the most prolific lender in that category, followed by another Japanese financial group, MUFG, in second place, while Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation came in at fifth.

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Still, the number of ordinary people in Japan actively divesting from fossil fuels remains small: Just 146 individuals have so far reported divestments worth 568.2 million yen ($5.1 million) since the campaign launched late last year, according to 350.org Japan.

Takejiro Sueyoshi, a former senior banking executive who is now a special adviser to the United Nations Environment Program Finance Initiative, believes it will require strong government leadership for banks to take a more assertive step toward renewables.

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Some senior government figures, at least, seem to be paying attention. The foreign minister, Taro Kono, recently blasted his country’s lackluster embrace of renewable sources like wind and solar as “lamentable.”

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Narita, the Buddhist priest, said he had not sought media attention for his decision to divest but simply wanted to do his part “to contribute to society.” The action is grounded in his beliefs.

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