Japan struggles to cut emissions as levels increase

Kyoto Protocol promise difficult to keep as lifestyle changes drive up carbon dioxide


Seven years after hosting the Kyoto Protocol conference and pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions 6 percent by 2012, Japan finds itself in the embarrassing position of having increased levels of emissions and being uncertain over what to do about it.

The Kyoto gathering in 1997 resulted in an international agreement that attempts to curb global warming. Under the protocol, Japan is required to decrease its greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent from its 1990 level between 2008 and 2012.

But factors such as changes in lifestyle and economic trends have pushed up carbon dioxide emissions, which account for about 90 percent of all emissions.

The government reported last month that greenhouse gas emissions for fiscal 2002 came to 1.33 billion tons, 7.6 percent higher than the 1990 level.

“I believe the government will have to come up with very drastic measures” to cut emissions now, Environment Minister Yuriko Koike said the day the figures were released.

Later this month, the government will issue an interim report that reviews its global warming policies and outlines additional measures. Tokyo has divided the years to the 2012 deadline into three periods, with policy reviews scheduled at the end of the first two. This month’s report will be the first review.

The main culprits behind the recent rise in emissions are individual households and offices.

According to government figures, carbon dioxide emitted from homes accounted for 13.3 percent of the total figure in fiscal 2002 — an increase of 28.8 percent from the fiscal 1990 level. The corresponding figure for offices was 15.8 percent, a 36.7 percent jump.

One reason for the rise in household emissions has been the increase in the overall number of households as more people live alone, according to Yoshiteru Sakaguchi, assistant head of the ministry’s Climate Change Policy Division.

Government data show that while Japan’s population increased 3 percent from 1990 to 2001, the number of households increased 16.4 percent.

“We estimate that office space and the number of people working in the service industry will also keep increasing,” Sakaguchi added.

Greater affluence has also become a roadblock to emission reduction efforts, said Chiho Mito of the Energy Conservation Center, Japan, an incorporated foundation under the jurisdiction of the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy.

Although manufacturers are marketing appliances that use energy-saving technologies — particularly since the enactment of the revised Energy Conservation Law in 1999 — there are more appliances in people’s homes than ever before.

One example is air conditioners. Mito said that models sold in 2003 use only 60 percent of the electricity of those from 1995.

However, the Cabinet Office’s Economic and Social Research Institute found that the typical household owned an average of two air conditioners in 2001, compared with one in 1990.

“The energy saved by new technologies is offset by the increase in the number of air conditioners,” Mito lamented.

A similar problem exists in the transportation sector, which saw its fiscal 2002 carbon dioxide emissions rise 20.4 percent from fiscal 1990.

The government has set a target of boosting automobile fuel efficiency by an average of 23 percent from 1995 levels by 2010. According to the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, 70 percent of new cars sold in fiscal 2002 met this standard.

“I expect most of the cars sold in fiscal 2005 (which begins April 1) will achieve this level,” said JAMA official Tadashi Kotake, who explained that domestic automakers have been upgrading the fuel efficiency of engines and other car systems.

But the number of motor vehicles on Japan’s roads increased to 74.2 million in 2003 from 57.7 million in 1990, according to transport ministry studies.

In addition, some experts say they fear the number of cars and distances traveled will continue to rise.

Yoshichika Takai, a researcher at the National Institute for Land and Infrastructure Management, explained that the lack of bus and train services in rural areas has made people there dependent on cars.

Meanwhile, the continued construction of new roads serves as an additional incentive to drive, and work environments that allow for more flexible hours have led to a decrease in the use of public transportation, he said.

Changes in distribution, such as the frequent deliveries made to convenience stores, is another factor that pushes emission levels up, Takai added.

Government and NGOs have all suggested a variety of ways to reduce emissions, but many of the ideas have problems.

Kimiko Hirata of Kiko Network, a nongovernmental organization studying global warming issues, said the government should introduce mandatory insulation standards for buildings to reduce air conditioner use, as in Europe.

Environment Ministry officials said they plan to introduce energy-saving standards for new buildings and promote retrofitting existing buildings so they become more energy efficient.

But Sakaguchi of the ministry’s Climate Change Policy Division admitted it is difficult to improve current standing structures.

One problem is that tenants are often unwilling to pay the higher rent that building owners charge after renovations and move out, he said.

The Environment Ministry is also looking at the transport industry and investigating the use of an ethanol gasoline made from vegetables.

According to a ministry panel, if all cars on the road in 2010 use gasoline with 10 percent ethanol, carbon dioxide emissions from the transport sector could be trimmed by 5.5 percent from 1990 levels.

Sakaguchi said cars powered by vegetable-derived fuel are already being driven in the United States and Brazil.

But JAMA’s Kotake said there are still hurdles to clear before the proposal can get off the ground, such as the need to reduce costs and secure a stable supply of ethanol.

There is a bright spot amid all the difficulties.

Total carbon dioxide emissions from the industrial sector, which account for 37.5 percent of the national total and the largest portion, fell 1.7 percent from fiscal 1990 levels.

Hideo Takahashi, director of the environment, science and technology bureau of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), said the decline is the result of companies’ efforts to develop and utilize energy saving technologies.

However, Hirata of Kiko Network pointed out that the reduction was largely brought about by a fall in output as a result of a stagnant economy. Now that the economy is back on a recovery course, emissions could rise again, she warned.

Hirata stressed the need for legislation forcing firms to measure and make public the emission levels from their factories and offices.

She added that this data could be used as references for emissions trading and for setting mandatory emission reduction figures for businesses. The Environment Ministry put forward a similar idea during a meeting of a panel studying global warming issues earlier this month.

Nippon Keidanren’s Takahashi said he opposes the idea, because obligatory targets would restrict the amount of energy that companies expend and would reduce production.

However, Kiko Network’s Hirata remains firm.

Cutting emissions without measuring, she said, “is like dieting without using scales.”