Going green: energy conservation is no barrier to Japan's economic ambitions.
Japan boasts one of the world's strictest and most progressive policies on global warming. Officials here do not question whether the Earth's climate is changing. Instead, they treat the phenomenon as a current crisis that they are attempting to solve by setting ambitious environmental standards and energy laws. Such goals are the driving force behind the country's technology advancements that strive to improve energy conservation and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Since the world's first oil crisis in the 1970s, Japan has experienced a 37 percent reduction in energy consumption--one of the best rates among industrialized nations. In the country's latest energy policy, government officials are aiming for another significant improvement in the next 22 years.
"The most important part of this policy is to reduce energy consumption by 30 percent by 2030," says Kaztmori Nagai, general director of the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization's energy conservation department. The organization is one of several government-funded agencies that manage, evaluate and commercialize technologies aimed at improving energy efficiency.
Japan's gross domestic product has more than doubled since 1973, from 200 trillion to 525 trillion yen. Yet energy consumption during the same timeframe has fallen and remained steady, at less than 200 million kiloliters of crude oil per year, says Naoto Hisajima, director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' climate change division. While the drop and plateau in energy consumption is a good sign, officials are eager to see the numbers dip more.
"Since 1988, we have not seen a reduction--it's been almost flat," he says.
The reason is two-fold. The oil shock in 1973 first forced the nation's industrial sector, which consumed two-thirds of the country's energy, to implement conservation measures. In the steel industry, for example, technologies that enabled continuous casting, large-scale waste heat recovery and the recycling of waste plastics and tires helped reduce energy, needs. By 2004, those efforts paid off with an energy consumption reduction to 45 percent from 65.5 percent across the industrial sector. But Japanese lifestyles changed simultaneously and energy consumption increased in the commercial, residential and transportation sectors. Those rising numbers have offset the reductions in the industrial sector.
Still, Japan's carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion in 2005 accounted for only a fraction of the world's share--4 percent. Developing countries, such as China and India, are accountable for 50 percent of the world's CO2 emissions.
Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announced a 14 percent reduction in emissions as part of the government's mid-term energy goal. That's a daring number, officials say, because the nation already is struggling to reduce its carbon dioxide output to meet the Kyoto Protocol deadline in 2012.
Adopted by most industrialized nations, but not the United States, the Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Countries that have ratified the treaty have agreed to cut their carbon dioxide emissions to five percent below their 1990 levels. Japan is attempting to reduce its emissions by 6 percent.
"To achieve the Kyoto Protocol targets, we need to do more," says Nagai. "That's why the Japanese government needed to strengthen its policy to save energy."
The government in May 2006 announced the new policy, which demands reductions in several sectors. Along with attaining the additional 30 percent reduction in energy consumption by 2030, the policy calls for another 10 percent cut in oil dependency. In the transportation sector, Japan remains nearly 100 percent reliant on petroleum. It is striving to decrease that percentage to 80 by improving fuel consumption in vehicles, promoting clean energy vehicles and introducing new energy saving technologies for vehicles and transportation systems.
Officials also want to boost nuclear power generation in the country to a level of more than 30 or 40 percent of its energy production. By taking such measures the government intends to save nearly 59 million kiloliters of crude oil in the next two years.
Many of the long-term reduction goals are based upon the maturation of not yet realized technologies, but officials in both the government and technology sectors are confident those developments will happen.
The nation has not always been so environmentally conscious. During its industrial revolution in the first half of the 20th century, Japan polluted the air terribly, officials say. But the country was able to reverse the tide in the 1970s. The turnaround is now a point of pride for the archipelagic nation's 127 million inhabitants, who are dependent upon imports for much of their energy sources and raw materials.
The oil strikes in 1974 and 1979 taught the Japanese a critical lesson: Officials realized that energy security and independence was crucial for the nation's growth. Not only did they begin to implement measures to promote energy efficiency in the nation's manufacturing industries, but they also sought to lessen the country's dependence on crude oil, 90 percent of which is imported.
"Japan is prepared to embrace current climate change problems because of those experiences," says Hitomi Watanabe, deputy director of the international press division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in June announced that Japan would strive to cut its carbon dioxide emissions 60 to 80 percent by 2050 as part of his predecessor's "Cool Earth Initiative" to halve global greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.
With current technologies, it's nearly impossible to achieve this reduction, says Hisajima.
"We have to develop some very revolutionary technologies," agrees Nagai. The New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, known as NEDO, is focusing on 21 energy innovations, such as high efficiency solar power generation, intelligent transport systems, fuel cells and near-zero emissions coal-fired power generation, in which carbon dioxide is captured and stored underground beneath a layer of water.
One of the projects focuses on the growing information technology needs of the country. Between now and 2025, the volume of information is going to increase five times, says Nagai. To keep up with those electricity demands, Japan will have to build more than 20 nuclear power plants. Scientists are working on various programs to avert the need for constructing so many nuclear energy facilities. Ongoing research in large display screens and nanotechnology aim to reduce power consumption in computers and electronic storage devices.
Since the 1970s, global financing in research and development in the energy sector has declined and remained stagnant. But Japan leads the world in such funding, with almost $4 billion in 2005. "The Japanese people aren't afraid to make such investments," says Hisajima.
Fukuda is committing $30 billion in research and development efforts during the next five years to boost technologies in the energy and environment sector.
He also has pledged to provide up to $10 billion in the next five years to help developing nations reduce emissions and achieve economic growth.
"In order to fully utilize those investments, we need to have international cooperation," says Nagai.
NEDO has funded demonstrations and models of energy conservation systems throughout Asia. A technology employed in the Japanese steel industry that recovers heat from the coke used in the production process has been installed in a steel factory in China, which is saving 25,000 tons of crude oil per year. In Laos, the organization built a photovoltaic power generation facility that supplies energy during the day and pumps river water up to a reservoir. At night, the water is released and as it passes through a pump house, it generates more electricity.
Japan is willing to transfer these energy saving technologies to other countries and is actively promoting such a policy in developing nations, officials say.
"We are trying to do our best efforts to make advanced technology in this energy saving area so we can make an international contribution," says Nagai.
However, the government has not yet determined how it will share the intellectual property rights associated with such transfers, and that could become a contentious issue down the road.
Without the participation of a majority of countries, achieving the 2050 initiative is impossible, officials say. Countries that are not part of the Kyoto Protocol, in particular, hold the key to reaching the goal, says Hisajima. The treaty encompasses only one-third of the global greenhouse gas emitters. The majority of the polluters are found in rapidly developing nations, such as China and India, and in countries that have not ratified the treaty. The United States, along with other industrialized countries that are non-Kyoto parties, account for 21 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions.
In hopes of spurring global action at the Group of Eight Summit held in Toyako, Hokkaido, last month, Japanese officials placed climate change at the forefront of the meeting's agenda. World leaders in attendance, including President George W. Bush, signed a communique promising that their nations would "consider and adopt" greenhouse gas reductions of at least 50 percent by 2050 as part of a forthcoming United Nations treaty in 2009.
Besides the technology challenges in reducing global greenhouse gases, there remains one other hurdle: society. "Without creating a low-carbon society, we cannot achieve the 2050 goal," says Hisajima.
In Japan, the average consumer's interest in reducing carbon dioxide emissions is rising. Conserving energy and water is a growing trend among the Japanese, and officials say the perception of being green is becoming quite cool.
The government has created a "green challenge" card that individuals can carry to help them reduce their carbon dioxide output by one kilogram per day. To reach their daily quota, they can choose from a variety of habits, such as setting the air conditioning two degrees lower, reducing shower times by a minute, pulling the plug on unused appliances and taking public transportation for errands.
Government offices also promote a policy that allows workers to don a summertime "cool biz" outfit consisting of short-sleeved shirts, no ties and moisture-wicking trousers during the hot weeks when the air conditioning is set at 82 degrees Fahrenheit to conserve energy. Officials say the country has cut several million tons of greenhouse gases since the implementation of the three-year old policy.
In department stores, home appliances are tagged with information on the nation's energy conservation policies. Consumers can compare the energy efficiency of the products and pick the one that will comply with standards further down the road.
The government continues to impose regulations that challenge manufacturers to produce higher efficiency goods. NEDO oversees a "top runner" program, which stipulates energy conservation standards for domestic appliances and vehicles.
"The companies that can do the best in energy conservation will become the gold standard for each of the technologies," says Nagai.
As all of these policies fall into place, the nation is demonstrating that economic development and environmental protection are compatible concepts, says Suzuki.
"We need to protect the environment, but we have to keep our sustainable growth in our economy," says Nagai.