Going Green: Energy Conservation Is No Barrier to Japan's Economic Ambitions

Article excerpt

TOKYO -- Every spring, fierce winds kick up the Gobi Desert's dust and blow east through China, where the dirt blends with pollutants from the growing numbers of factories. The resulting mixture travels across the Sea of Japan and hangs over this nation's islands in a smog the locals call "yellow sand." When the rainy season arrives in late spring, it falls from the sky and coats everything with a dirty film--a heightening reminder of the world's changing climate.

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.

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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. …