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Sompo goes first: Japan's insurance firms are starting to move away from coal

Japanese insurers have been slow to move away from underwriting coal power projects, bucking global decarbonisation trends. Sompo is first to adopt a coal policy, although it's not aligned with the Paris Agreement. Its two big rivals are tipped to follow.

Japanese insurance giant Sompo has announced a policy on coal that could herald the beginning of a shift away from coal power underwriting in the East Asian country.

Sompo said in a statement on Wednesday (23 September) that it would no longer insure and invest in new coal-fired power stations in Japan, although it would continue to back those it is currently involved in.

The policy, effective from December, does not prevent Sompo from insuring coal projects in other countries.

The news was welcomed as a positive first step by green groups, although the Japan Center for a Sustainable Environment and Society pointed out that Sompo is still in the running to underwrite Vung Ang 2, one of the region’s most controversial coal projects, in Vietnam.

The policy is also not strong enough to meet Paris climate accord commitments on emissions reductions.

Sompo’s announcement will provide impetus for its main competitors, Tokio Marine and MS&AD, to publish coal policies of their own, sources have suggested.

Update, 29 September: Tokio Marine, one of the world largest coal insurers, has published a climate strategy, including a position on coal.

However, environmental group Insure our Future has called Tokio Marine’s new position on coal “very weak” and “greenwashing”, as the policy makes it difficult to determine whether there are any coal projects the insurer will exclude from cover.

 

Update, 30 September: MS&AD has published a climate policy, making it the third Japanese insurer to make a move on coal inside a week. Green groups have also criticised the policy as a misleading attempt to brand itself as sustainable while making commitments filled with loopholes.  

Japan’s insurance giants have largely resisted a global trend away from coal power underwriting. Tokio Marine, Sompo and MS&AD ranked poorly in an assessment of the world’s top 30 insurance firms by the Unfriend Coal campaign last year, all three scoring zero for coal divestment.

Meanwhile, the number of insurers withdrawing cover for coal projects more than doubled in 2019, according to Unfriend Coal campaign data. Asia is the only major region left for coal insurance, and Japan is the region’s biggest coal insurer.

Coal projects are becoming increasingly uninsurable. As global temperatures rise, extreme weather is becoming more common, leading to higher climate-related claims for insurers.

In 2019, climate change contributed to 15 events that cost more than US$1 billion in damage, with over half of those costing more than US$10 billion. Between 2017 and 2018, total losses from natural disasters amounted to $510 billion, compared to just $41 billion for the previous 30 years, according to insurer Munich Re.

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