Can others save Earth despite Big Oil’s blinkers?

by Stephen Hesse

How can an economic superpower founded on progress and innovation be so averse to change that would cut the greenhouse-gas emissions that are spurring global warming and climate change?

While the Japanese government now has a team of researchers working on scenarios for a low-carbon society, politicians and corporations in the United States remain polarized over whether warming is worth worrying about.

My guess is that future generations will be dumbfounded at how long it took us, in the face of such certainty, to get over our self-destructive fixation on generating energy from fossil fuels.

Still, there’s hope. A recent report released in Japan illustrates that major cuts in CO 2 emissions can be made without compromising economic growth, by reducing energy demand and moving to a low-carbon energy supply.

Apparently, several U.S. states recognize this as well. California, Minnesota and New Jersey have all passed landmark legislation requiring 80 percent cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. At the national level of U.S. politics, however, oil- and car-company lobbyists still have more clout than voters.

Luckily, the rest of the world is not nearly so wedded to the past, nor so beholden to Big Oil.

Japan and Europe, for example, have moved beyond bickering between the two camps — those who profit from inaction, and those developing new energy approaches that make environmental and economic sense. In Japan, government-backed researchers have begun “back-casting” from 2050 in an effort to calculate what steps should be taken over the next 40 years to achieve a 70-percent cut in CO 2 emissions by then.

This back-casting is part of a research project known as the Japan Low Carbon Society Scenarios Toward 2050. The project began in 2004 under the auspices of the National Institute of Environmental Studies and Kyoto University, and is funded by the Global Environmental Research Fund of the Ministry of the Environment. It includes about 60 researchers and experts from universities, research institutes and businesses specializing in such fields as environment, energy, economics, industry, transportation and urban studies, writes Kiyoshi Koshiba in the Japan for Sustainability Newsletter, Issue 59, released July 31 online.

Koshiba’s article summarizes an Interim Report the research team released this year, titled “Japan Scenarios Toward a Low-Carbon Society (LCS): Feasibility Study for 70 Percent CO 2 Emission Reduction by 2050 below 1990 Levels.”

Japan for Sustainability is a nonprofit organization that disseminates environmental information from and about Japan in an effort to promote a more sustainable society. Koshiba’s article, “Japan Can Reduce CO 2 Emissions by 70 Percent by 2050: Interim Report,” can be found online at www.japanfs.org.

According to the team’s report, scientific data confirm that stabilizing the global climate within natural fluctuations will require 50 percent cuts in human greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. Because industrialized countries have the largest emissions per capita — and thus the greatest ethical responsibility to cut greenhouse gases — the researchers have studied the feasibility of creating a dramatically low-carbon society in Japan.

Their conclusion? If Japan reduces its energy demands by 40 to 45 percent through improved efficiency and the introduction of a low-carbon energy supply, the nation has the technological potential to reduce CO 2 emissions to 70 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, without sacrificing its present levels of affluence.

Beginning with a vision of a desirable Japanese society in 2050, the researchers established two scenarios with differing goals: Scenario A focuses on technologies and economic growth, while Scenario B focuses on local communities and the natural environment.

Through brainstorming, the researchers detailed the future society, including goods and services needed, architecture and city planning, and changes in industrial structure. They then quantified energy needs. They also made the following assumptions, some of which you will agree with, others you might not:

* First, annual per capita GDP would be 2 percent in Scenario A and 1 percent in Scenario B;

* Second, due to Japan’s declining birthrate, a baseline population of 127 million (the year 2000) could be expected to decrease to 95 million by 2050 in Scenario A, and to 100 million in Scenario B. Furthermore, in Scenario A, Japan’s GDP in 2050 would be double the 2000 level, while in Scenario B it would be about 1.5 times the 2000 level.

Koshiba notes four more assumptions. The level of services necessary for daily life (e.g., clothing, food, housing and entertainment) should be maintained or improved; innovative technologies, such as those for electric or fuel-cell vehicles, should be considered; unproved technologies, such as nuclear fusion, are excluded; and the analysis should be in line with existing long-term national strategies, including plans for nuclear power.

Recognizing the chronic inability of Japan’s electrical utilities to use nuclear power safely, paired with government determination to increase nuclear-power generation, this fourth assumption may be a deal-killer for those totally averse to nuclear power.

However, based on these assumptions, here are some of the researchers’ conclusions regarding estimated energy-demand reductions:

* The industrial sector should reduce energy demand 20 to 40 percent through structural changes and energy-saving technologies;

* The passenger-transportation sector will need cuts of 80 percent through more efficient land use and improved energy efficiency;

* The freight-transportation sector should reduce by 60 to 70 percent through better logistics management and improved-efficiency vehicles;

* The household sector needs 50 percent cuts in energy use through replacing old buildings, increased use of insulation, and new energy-saving appliances;

* The commercial sector should reduce energy use by 40 percent through renovation and construction, using high-insulation building materials and energy-saving office equipment.

All these reductions sound expensive to implement, but the researchers suggest that Scenario A can be achieved at an annual cost of 1 percent of GDP (based on projections for the year 2050), or between ¥8.9 trillion (0.83 percent of GDP in 2050) and ¥9.8 trillion (0.9 percent); and that Scenario B can be realized at an annual cost of between ¥6.7 trillion (0.96 percent) and ¥7.4 trillion (1.06 percent). A lot, yes — but far less than most countries dole out annually on their military spending.

Perhaps the researchers’ most pertinent finding is the need to make changes sooner rather than later.

“Early investment in energy savings is the optimal path for mitigation action. When energy-saving investments are delayed . . . it becomes necessary to introduce technologies at a higher marginal cost, and it is estimated that economic loss will be greater than the loss in the case of early investment,” notes Koshiba.

As the researchers conclude, “In order to achieve the LCS goals, . . . prompt action should be taken at the earliest stage. Such action involves structural changes in the industrial sector and investment in infrastructure. Moreover, it is necessary to accelerate development, investment and use of energy-saving technologies and low-carbon energy technologies.”

Interestingly, Japan is not working alone. According to Koshiba, since February 2006 the Ministry of the Environment in Japan and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Britain have been cooperating on scientific research under the heading, “Developing visions for a low-carbon society through sustainable development.”

In addition to joint research, the Anglo-Japanese project is hosting international workshops to integrate related studies worldwide. Two of these have already been held, and the third will be held in Feb. 2008 in Tokyo. At that meeting, low-carbon studies from around the globe will be consolidated for the 34th G-8 summit, scheduled to be held in Japan next July.

But if there is one line from Koshiba’s summary of the report that U.S. politicians should take to heart, it is this: “The government should play a leading role in promoting a common vision towards LCS at the earliest stage, enforcing comprehensive measures for societal and technological innovation, implementing strong measures for translating such reduction potential into reality, promoting measures for public investment based on long-term perspectives and leading incentives for private investment.”

So listen up, America: The future’s here, and it’s all about more for less carbon.

For more on the National Institute of Environmental Studies and the Japan Low Carbon Society Scenarios toward 2050, visit: www.nies.go.jp.
To learn more about Japan for Sustainability, visit: www.japanfs.org.
Stephen Hesse welcomes readers’ comments at stevehesse@hotmail.com.