Generally speaking, innovation is driven by constraints and shortages. When Japan faced the first international oil crisis in 1973, it looked like the end of the world for the nation, since it depended on imports for 99 percent of its oil. However, Japan survived the oil crunch and used it as a springboard for further economic expansion, instead of sinking in the upheaval.

Although crude prices quadrupled after the crunch, the specter of a cutoff of oil supplies to Japan never materialized. Most industrial nations were major consumers of oil, and Japan was not the only one to be affected by price hikes of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Higher oil prices led to a surge in demand for fuel-efficient Japanese subcompacts and power-efficient home electronic products. Even before the oil crisis, automobile and electronics makers in resources-short Japan had designed products to be energy-efficient while people tried to conserve energy in their daily lives. For Japanese manufacturing industries, energy conservation had been a priority in technological innovation.

Until 1971, two years before the oil crisis, the currency exchange rate was fixed at 360 yen to the dollar, and crude cost $3 per barrel. The crude price was high enough to encourage the development of oil-saving technologies in Japan. In Western industrial countries, energy-saving technologies were less important and less attractive.

Now, even in the United States, where gasoline prices are relatively low, an increasing number of consumers are purchasing automobiles for fuel efficiency. In fact, a large number of people are on waiting lists to buy Toyota Prius hybrid cars. Among Hollywood celebrities, the Prius is popular, not because it is fuel-efficient but because it is trendy.

Commuters in Tokyo, meanwhile, have no choice but to ride perhaps the world’s most crowded trains. This is partly because Routes 1 and 2 of the Metropolitan Expressway, which opened in 1964, have only two lanes each way. It is next to impossible to drive to work and report there on time.

In central Tokyo, land prices are sky-high. If a commuter wishes to limit train traveling time to downtown Tokyo to less than an hour, the most he could afford for his four-member family is a tiny “2 LDK” (two bedrooms, a living room and dining room) condominium. Such an apartment usually has only two exterior walls and is highly energy-efficient. The small amount of floor space in the average Japanese home contributes to lower air-conditioning costs. Nevertheless, per capita energy consumption in the nation is not low.

In 2002, the U.S. and Canada led the world in annual per capita energy consumption, both using the equivalent of 8.0 tons of oil, followed by France, Russia, South Korea, Germany and Japan, all with 4.1 to 4.3 tons. The world average was 1.7 tons. China’s per capita consumption was only 1.0 ton.

Despite its temperate climate, Japan’s energy consumption is high because steel, ceramic manufacturing, nonferrous metals and other energy-guzzling export industries dominate. Other factors include heavy use of air conditioners during the hot and humid summer, ubiquitous vending machines and automatic doors, 24-hour convenience stores, too many traffic lights, and the common practice of lighting up buildings at tourist spots.

In per capita electric power consumption, Canada and the U.S. are the overwhelming leaders, with Japan occupying the No. 3 spot and France, No. 4.

Some experts argue that Japan is doing everything possible to save energy and can hardly do more. But I believe Japan can do much more to save energy, especially electric power.

One idea is to bar automobiles from entering city centers and to adopt the “park-and-ride system.” Large public parking areas should be established in the suburbs to encourage drivers to switch to light-rail transit, a modern version of a street-car or bus system. More than 50 cities in Europe have introduced LRT systems to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, decades after abandoning street cars.

In Japan, an LRT has been introduced in Toyama, Fukui, Gifu and Hiroshima. It will be introduced soon in Hakodate, and is under consideration in Kyoto.

The LRT has advantages: It is pollution-free and inexpensive to build (about 1/20 the cost of subway construction), features low-floor vehicles that make it easy for older passengers and children to board and exit, and leads to the development of commercial districts in city centers.

Perhaps it is inevitable to use petroleum products to power automobiles, trucks and aircraft. But to attain sustainable transport, it is essential to increase the fuel efficiency of automobiles (and back off gas-guzzlers), curtail needless movement of people and goods, and expand public transport systems.

Reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions from transport are among the least painful ways of dealing with global warming.

In developing countries, too, motorization is inevitable, so it is essential that industrial countries transfer to them the technologies and social systems they need to build sustainable transport systems.

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