Last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought a leading role in the fight against climate change when he proposed a global initiative to halve greenhouse gas emis sions by 2050.
But for all its dramatic appeal — made in the leadup to last week’s Group of Eight summit in Germany — the disconnect between Abe’s Cool Earth 50 proclamation and Japan’s spotty environmental record had many people scratching their heads.
Japan boasted its green credentials in 1997 when it hosted talks leading to the historic Kyoto Protocol, in which signatories agreed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by an average of 5.2 percent by 2012. Japan itself committed to cuts of 6 percent by 2008-2012.
Yet Japan has little to show by way of results. According to the Environment Ministry, output of greenhouse gases in 2005, the last year for which data are available, were in fact 7.8 percent above the 1990 level — or 13.8 percent above target. The increase in carbon dioxide emissions was even more pronounced, at 13.1 percent above the 1990 level.
Following are some basic facts about global warming and how Japan is dealing with it:
What’s the latest on global warming?
On May 21, the magazine New Scientist reported that recent global carbon dioxide emissions are growing more quickly than the worst-case climate scenario used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the organization created by the United Nations to assess scientific, technical and socioeconomic issues connected to climate change. The reason was inefficient production of energy across the globe, the magazine said.
Although emissions grew 1.1 percent annually on average during the 1990s, growth climbed to 3.3 percent between 2000 and 2004, when the study ended, the magazine said, citing a research team led by Michael Raupach of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.
What’s the world doing about it?
In 2005, a record $38 billion was invested in renewable energy, up dramatically from $30 billion the year before, according to the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, which connects governments and environmental groups worldwide.
Who is leading the pack?
China boasted renewable-energy generation capacity of 42 gigawatts that year — most of it small hydroelectric plants. After that came Germany, with 23 gigawatts, chiefly from wind energy, and the United States, combining 23 gigawatts of mostly biomass, geothermal, wind and small-hydro power. Spain and India followed, with Japan lagging behind in sixth place.
These figures exclude large hydroelectric dams, which despite being a source of renewable energy often exact a toll on surrounding ecosystems.
What has Japan contributed?
Japan has made dramatic progress in energy efficiency over the decades following the 1973 oil crisis. Measured as the equivalent in tons of petroleum per $1,000 in actual gross domestic product, Japan has boosted energy efficiency by about a third since 1970.
The lower the ratio, the more efficient the energy use. In 2004, Japan stood at 0.11, better than 0.18 for Germany, 0.22 for the U.S. and 0.85 for China, according to figures from the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Higher efficiency, of course, translates into lower greenhouse emissions.
And at government ministries, the bureaucrats charged with crafting green policy set the example by dressing seasonally to keep summer air conditioning and winter heating low. Documents are printed on the back of scrap paper and reusable bags are distributed.
Thanks to these and other efforts, Japanese ministries’ greenhouse-gas emissions dropped almost 16 percent between 2001 and 2006.
How much does Japan figure on the global energy stage?
Greatly. Japan ranks fourth in the world in both consumption of primary energy and emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, according to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The only countries with more impact were the U.S., China and Russia, in that order in both categories.
Still, there are wide gaps between Japan and the others: The U.S., for example, outpaces Japan in terms of energy consumption and output of carbon dioxide by more than four times.
Has Japan shown initiative in further improving energy use?
In several areas, yes. Electronics giant Sharp Corp. is the world’s largest manufacturer of solar cells, for one. And thanks to aggressive government support, Japan now accounts for half of total global photovoltaic production and installed capacity, according to Kanagawa Prefecture-based New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization.
And though it has opposed efforts by California to introduce ambitious limits on emissions from autos — efforts that have inspired other U.S. states to take similar action — Toyota Motor Corp. can still rattle off a long list of green accomplishments, among them a 19 percent reduction of carbon dioxide emissions in fiscal 2005 compared with 1990, due to streamlining of operations and new technologies.
That, of course, is not to mention Toyota’s Prius hybrid automobile, whose 35.5 km per liter fuel efficiency has made it a green sensation. Japanese insiders now whisper about a next-generation battery for a plug-in hybrid that could do much more to reduce the country’s — and the world’s — reliance on gasoline.
So why hasn’t Japan been able to cut greenhouse gases more?
One reason is that industrial efficiency isn’t matched by a sense of urgency over emissions across society. Some of Japan’s sharpest increases in carbon dioxide came from the service sector, the source of a 44.6 percent rise in emissions above the 1990 level. This is partly attributable to demand for heating electricity during cold weather. Unlike government ministries, it appears, private companies were too reluctant to ask workers or customers to just bundle up.
More important was the transport sector, representing a fifth of total carbon dioxide output. Within that segment, leisure travel-related emissions in 2005 were nearly 40 percent above the 1990 level.
Is the government cracking down?
No. In contrast to steps by the European Commission and some U.S. states to slash car emissions, the government seems to be taking a back-seat approach. Only Tokyo and the prefectures of Chiba, Saitama, Kanagawa and Aichi have anti-idling measures in place, according to an official at the Environment Ministry — and those lack teeth. The official said he believed there was no movement afoot to seek a nationwide anti-idling law.
Considering the worldwide brouhaha over climate change, is anything changing in Japan?
It seems so. Another Environment Ministry official confided that policymakers feel a need “to accelerate” Japan’s reaction to global warming, and that a ramp-up of policy will be announced by March.
That would be just in time to make a dramatic splash for another big, international conference with an expected environmental theme: next year’s July 7-9 Group of Eight summit, to be hosted by Japan in Hokkaido.