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The energy-wasting industrialized world had a rude awakening in the 1970s when oil prices zoomed into the stratosphere. Japan was no exception. The oil crisis spread a sense of energy dependence nationwide, setting off a spate of conservation measures. In recent years, though, Japanese consumers seem to have grown complacent about saving energy amid an array of electrical products and appliances that have made their lives more convenient and comfortable.

Under these circumstances, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change — which sets binding targets for industrialized nations’ trimming emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2 and other greenhouse gases — will take effect Feb. 16. Japan must cut its emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels in the five years between 2008 and 2012. This target will be difficult to achieve if CO2 emissions continue to increase. As the host of the 1997 Kyoto conference on global warming, Japan has an added responsibility to meet its international commitment.

As a result, a sense of crisis grips the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). In a bid to curb the growth of energy consumption, the ministry has drafted legislation calling for new conservation measures. The bill, due to reach the Diet floor during the current regular session that opened last month, would require large trucking and other transportation companies to submit reports on their emission-reduction plans. The ministry would issue recommendations or orders to the companies if their plans fell short of requirements. Violations of such orders could be subject to fines.

The proposed legislation would require construction companies to use more energy-efficient equipment and materials, such as for air conditioners and heat insulation, when building or renovating condominiums with a floor area of at least 2,000 square meters. Under current law, these requirements apply only to office buildings of that floor area.

Obviously these measures are designed to brake the rising trend of energy consumption. However, government action alone is not sufficient to influence consumer behavior, which is the key to energy conservation. Notable in this regard are private-sector conservation programs, including solar power generation and the promotion of hybrid cars, which combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor.

The hybrid car is said to be about 50 percent more fuel-efficient than the gasoline-engine vehicle. The price of the car itself is higher, but cost savings accrue in time, or sooner if gasoline prices go up. That should encourage the purchase of hybrids. Hybrid cars are said to be gaining popularity in America and Europe as well. At the first North American motor show of 2005, leading U.S. automakers such as General Motors and Ford demonstrated a strong willingness to start full-scale hybrid development and production.

The household use of solar power-generating units is still limited, largely due to the high cost of installation (2 million yen to 2.5 million yen per unit). Households may sell extra electricity to local power companies, but the revenue is so small that, at existing rates, it will probably take up to 15 years to recover the cost of the solar installation. Yet the number of homes with a solar power unit has continued to rise for the the past few years. Reportedly a growing number of renovated homes, not just newly built ones, have adopted solar power.

Japan accounts for about one-half of the world’s production of photovoltaic cells, a key component of the solar power system. Thus Japan maintains the technological lead in this field, as it does in the area of hybrid cars. Over the past several years, solar power generation has increased worldwide, particularly in America and Europe. If demand continues to increase, unit prices could decline due to mass production.

METI plans to expand photovoltaic-cell output in five years to more than 10 times the present level. Solar electricity is seen as one of the most promising energy forms.

Hybrid-car users and solar power-generating households share a sense that they are contributing positively to the preservation of the global environment. Setting official energy-saving targets is necessary, but that only puts us on the starting line. The government must also make aggressive efforts to raise environmental awareness among the people and specifically explain how is to be gained in the long run by using more energy-efficient machines and equipment.

In other words, it must ensure that individual consumers develop a lifestyle oriented toward energy conservation. In the end, that will be far more effective than government subsidies.

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