Consumer behavior holds the key to Japan’s ability to fulfill its commitments under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming, as rising greenhouse gas emissions in the household and transport sectors make it increasingly hard to achieve the nation’s goals, said participants in a recent symposium in Tokyo.

And the post-Kyoto Protocol mechanism — already on the international political agenda — must ensure the participation of rapidly-expanding developing economies, they said, noting that a new approach needs to be considered to make them willingly join the efforts to address climate change.

As he opened the April 18 symposium organized by Keizai Koho Center, Fujio Mitarai, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), admitted that the prospect remains bleak for Japan achieving its goals under the Kyoto Protocol.

The United Nations treaty sets numerical targets on industrialized nations to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, to a level below that of the base year of 1990. This should be done during the commitment phase, between 2008 and 2012.

While the treaty requires Japan to cut its emissions by 6 percent below the 1990 level, annual emissions in Japan today are roughly 8 percent higher than in 1990.

Mitarai, also chairman of Canon Inc., said that while emissions in the nation’s industrial sectors have been cut to below the 1990 level, those in the household and transport sectors have sharply increased.

“As it is, it is very difficult for Japan to achieve the target,” Mitarai said, calling for a “concerted effort” by the industries, government and the public to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

As one option, Mitarai called for the introduction of the daylight saving time in Japan to cut energy consumption.

Touting nuclear power generation as a clean source of energy because it emits less carbon dioxide than thermal power plants, Mitarai also urged the nation’s utilities to make “sincere efforts” to correct their behavior and regain public trust in nuclear-power generation following a recent spate of scandals, in which the energy companies were found to have covered up accidents and problems at nuclear power plants on a massive scale for years.

In a keynote speech, Ryuji Matsuhashi, a professor of the Department of Environment Systems at University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Frontier Sciences, said Japan has to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 13-14 percent from the current levels during the 2008-2012 period if it is to achieve its Kyoto target.

Matsuhashi said the government’s basic program to achieve the target, adopted by the Cabinet in April 2005, is based on a principle that efforts to cut greenhouse gases must not be made at the sacrifice of economic growth — that the efforts should mainly evolve on the creation of energy-saving products and services. It also calls for sharing relevant information and data with consumers so as to create a nationwide movement to promote energy-efficient lifestyles, he said.

One problem here, Matsuhashi said, is that while technological innovations in the industrial sectors, such as development of new energy-efficient products or installation of energy-saving production facilities, are predictable, consumer behavior is not.

Changes in people’s lifestyles, such as how they drive their cars or use their air conditioners, and the readiness to switch to energy-efficient new products cannot be forced on the consumers and are therefore not predictable, the professor said, adding that this unpredictable factor holds the key to Japan’s anti-global warming efforts in the coming years.

Up to the users

Panelists from the business sectors said that while many Japanese firms have succeeded in improving the energy efficiency of their products, it is ultimately up to the users of these products whether the new technologies will result in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Nobukazu Sugano, general manager of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.’s corporate environmental affairs division, noted that CO2 emissions in the consumer electronics industry are larger when the products are actually put to use than those generated during the manufacturing process.

Emissions in the household sector can be reduced substantially if consumers switch to new, energy-saving products, he said.

While Japanese people use refrigerators and air conditioners for an average of 14 years after the purchase, products made 14 years ago consume nearly double the energy than the latest models, Sugano said.

Keiichi Mitobe, general manager of Honda Motor Co.’s Environment and Safety Planning Office, also said that 80 percent of greenhouse gases related to motor vehicles are emitted when the vehicles are on the road.

While automakers can produce cars with specifications that raise fuel efficiency by developing new engines and improving aerodynamic design, real fuel efficiency is up to how the drivers use the vehicles, Mitobe said.

Motorists can improve the per-liter mileage of their cars, for example, by installing latest car-navigation systems that will help them efficiently avoid congested roads, he added.

The changing lifestyles of today’s urban consumers, wherein 24-hour retailers like convenience stores are taken for granted, are also blamed for the rise in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

Hidekazu Yamaguchi, senior officer of the Eco-Tech Application Initiative of Seven & I Holdings, said the company has set numerical targets to save electricity consumption at its Seven-Eleven convenience stores.

The total number of convenience stores in Japan continues to rise because it’s still a relatively new industry, even though per-store electricity consumption has not increased, Yamaguchi said.

Etsuko Akiba, the Eastern Japan branch manager of Nippon Association of Consumer Specialists, said one factor behind the rise in greenhouse gas emissions in the home sector is the increase in the number of households in Japan as more and more people choose to live alone.

Akiba said that ultimately consumers themselves need to adopt more energy-saving lifestyles.

Citing a 2005 opinion poll by the government, Akiba said that nearly 90 percent of Japanese people say they are interested in the global warming issue. However, the same survey shows that far fewer people are ready to do something that will require them to change their lifestyles, she said, although she added that Japan’s younger generation appears more willing to do so than their older counterparts.

Akiba suggested that the government and business sectors consider more incentives for consumers to choose energy-saving products and services, such as tax cuts or point cards to reward them for the energy saved through better spending behavior.

Consumers should also be informed how much greenhouse gas is being emitted by watching television or using air conditioners at home — in such ways as installing real-time indicators on the products or putting the data on the monthly utility bills, she said.

A global issue

On international efforts after the Kyoto Protocol, Nippon Keidanren’s Mitarai emphasized that climate change is a global issue that must be addressed on a worldwide basis.

All major emitters, including the United States as well as emerging powers like China and India, must take part in the new, post-Kyoto international regime, Mitarai said.

The United States has pulled out of the Kyoto regime, and the U.N. treaty imposed no numerical targets on developing economies, where emissions are forecast to rise sharply in coming decades.

To ensure their participation in the new regime, Mitarai stressed that anti-global warming efforts must be pursued in ways that will not hamper their economic development, because every country prioritizes improvement of its economy and the living standards of its people.

As a nation that has achieved the world’s top-level energy-efficiency, Japan can play a major role in the global effort by transferring its energy-saving technologies to developing economies and helping them cut greenhouse gas emissions, the Keidanren chief said.

Matsuhashi of the University of Tokyo said Japan has begun to make headway in such international cooperation under the so-called Kyoto Mechanism.

Under the mechanism, Japan, by helping developing countries achieve greater energy efficiency, can share the credit for the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in the form of emission rights.

In fiscal 2006, the government spent 12.2 billion yen to purchase emissions rights put on sale under the mechanism, signing contracts covering carbon dioxide emissions of about 6.5 million tons, he said. The amount of such transactions is set to increase, and the government is ready to increase the budget for these deals, he added.

Matsuhashi also said that the post-Kyoto mechanism must be created in such ways that developing countries would be willing to take part — so that all major emitters including the United States would join as well.

So far, various ideas have been floated for the post-Kyoto regime, including the extension of the Kyoto-like formula of setting nation-by-nation numerical targets for cutting CO2 emissions, he noted.

Some of the proposals seek to impose a tougher burden on industrialized nations because of their past emissions that have triggered the climate change, while others try to impose varying targets on countries, depending on their stages of economic development, he said.

To ensure that the new mechanism is implemented in the most effective way, it needs to be a flexible one on which international consensus is easy to achieve, Matsuhashi said. It also needs to be based on reliable scientific data and analysis on both short-term and long-term economic impacts, he added.

Matsuhashi noted that the so-called sectoral approach, which is now being discussed within the government and focuses on energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions on each industrial or household sector, may be effective in encouraging developing economies to join.

A case study by Matsuhashi and his colleagues on taking this approach, for example, in the steel industry shows that Japan can potentially cut large amounts of carbon dioxide emissions by working together with China, where steel output is rising sharply on strong demand spurred by the nation’s rapid industrial growth, he said.

Introducing Japan’s energy-saving technologies to China’s booming steel industry could result in emissions cuts equivalent to as much as one-third of Japan’s total annual emissions, Matsuhashi pointed out.

While nation-by-nation numerical targets on cutting emissions are not likely to be accepted by developing economies that see such targets as hampering their future growth, they may be more willing to agree to mechanisms aimed at improving their energy efficiency on a sector-by-sector basis, he said, adding that there are several variations of this sectoral approach that could also be combined with the Kyoto Protocol-like formula.