Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Sustainable Approach to Automobile Society in Japan

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Sustainable Approach to Automobile Society in Japan

Article excerpt


The number of private cars in Japan grew from approximately 2.3 million in 1966 to 58.1 million (including 17.3 million mini-cars) in 2009. This huge increase has led to a car society in which cars have a dramatic impact on socioeconomic systems such as housing, industrial activity, and health services. The annual volume of carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions from the transportation sector is 236 million tons and accounts for about 20% of total releases in Japan (1.2 billion tons in 2008). About half of the CO2 emissions from the transportation sector comes from private cars, amounting to some 10% of the country's total volume.

Against this backdrop, Japan has had considerable interest in electric vehicles (EVs) for some time now. Besides an improvement in battery performance, EV developments in Japan include the provision of grants and subsidies for purchasing EVs and an increase in the number of battery chargers. However, these activities are based on the conventional idea that EVs should simply replace current gasoline-powered vehicles. This approach will be inadequate given the existence of more penetrating social problems such as an ageing society and excessive energy consumption. "Game changing" is therefore essential when thinking about developing a sustainable automobile society in Japan.

What is "Game Changing"?

Figure 1?highlights the concept of game changing in this context. The current approach to EV diffusion is based on continuation of contemporary automobile society and calls for EVs with perfor-mance and convenience characteristics similar to current gasoline-powered cars. However, a different view is needed, one that no longer favors the personal car, which is likely to gradually fade out with future social changes. If this happens, a different kind of vehicle will spread. We argue that this new mode of mobility will be produced and integrated into society in response to radical changes such as an aging society, oil depletion, and altered purchasing behavior of young people. The traditional "current approach" outlined in Figure 1 to "energy scarcity" includes simply replacing cars powered by combustion engines with EVs. However, the new, game-changing approach integrates the features of EVs with social issues. Therefore, "EVs in society" and an "EV society" are radically different ap-proaches, changing the meaning of what an auto-mobile "is" and "can be."

[Image omitted: see PDF]

Figure 1?What is "Game Changing"?

This interweaving of social issues with technological innovations is discussed extensively in the literature on sociotechnical transitions. Basically, a "transition" refers to a long-term change in an encompassing system that serves a basic societal function, a change that dramatically alters both the technical and the sociocultural dimensions of such a system (Elzen & Wieczorek, 2005). Much work has been conducted on the conceptual refinement of transition pathways, and it may therefore be helpful to view this "game-changing" attitude within the context of such research. The so-called multi-level perspective (MLP) outlined by Geels & Schot (2007) is especially helpful. The key feature of the MLP is that system innovations occur through the interplay of the dynamics between multiple levels.

First, the meso-level describes a specific social-technical regime, which in the case of this essay would be characterized by the current gasoline-powered automobile and its associated social and infrastructural system. Second, the macro-level is the socio-technical landscape, which describes factors that influence a variety of regimes: for example, social demographics, public concern about climate change, and so forth. Indeed, as Geels & Schot (2007) state, "changes at the landscape level create pressure on the regime." Finally, the micro-level of the MLP refers to technological niches in which radical innovations--for instance related to EVs--are incubated. …

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