How to really fix the economy... and the Earth
Japan set to show off its expertise on energy frugality
By Martin Fackler
Published: July 4, 2008
KUMAGAYA, Japan: With its towering furnaces and clanging conveyer belts carrying crushed rock, Taiheiyo Cement's factory looks like a relic from the Industrial Revolution. But it is actually a model of modern energy efficiency, harnessing its waste heat to generate much of its own electricity.
Engineers from China and elsewhere in Asia come to study its design, which has allowed the company to slash the amount of power it buys from the grid.
The plant is just one example of Japan's single-minded dedication to reducing energy use, a commitment that dates from the oil shocks of the 1970s that shook this resource-poor nation.
Now, with oil prices hitting dizzying levels and the world struggling to deal with global warming, Japan hopes to use its conservation record to assume a rare leadership role on a pressing global issue. It will showcase its efforts to export its conservation ethic - and its expensive power-saving technology - at the summit meeting of the Group of 8 industrial leaders that Japan is playing host to, starting Monday.
"Superior technology and a national spirit of avoiding waste give Japan the world's most energy-efficient structure," Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said in a recent speech outlining his agenda for the summit meeting. Japan, he said, "wants to contribute to the world."
Fukuda has already urged the leaders of the Group of 8 nations to adopt numerical targets as they discuss new ways to curb carbon dioxide emissions, a focus of treaty talks aimed at a new global agreement by the end of 2009. The existing pacts, the original climate treaty from 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012, have been widely described as failures by energy and climate experts.
The rising cost of energy is expected to dominate the meeting, which will be held on Hokkaido, Japan's northern island. President George W. Bush and other leaders are facing calls to try to increase oil supplies by expanding offshore drilling and to rein in hedge funds and other investors who speculate on world energy markets.
Japan, by many measures, is the most energy-frugal country among the world's developed nations. After the energy crises of the 1970s, the country forced itself to conserve with government-mandated energy-efficiency targets and steep taxes on petroleum. Energy experts also credit a national consensus on the need to consume less.
It is also the only industrial country that sustained government investment in energy research even after oil prices fell.
"Japan taught itself decades ago how to compete with gasoline at $4 per gallon," said Hisakazu Tsujimoto of the Energy Conservation Center, a government research institute that promotes energy efficiency. "It will fare better than other countries in the new era of high energy costs."
According to the International Energy Agency, based in Paris, Japan consumed half as much energy per dollar worth of economic activity as the European Union or the United States, and one-eighth as much as China and India in 2005. While the country is known for its green products like hybrid cars, most of its efficiency gains have come in less eye-catching areas, for example, by cutting energy use in manufacturing.
Corporate Japan has managed to keep its overall annual energy consumption unchanged at the equivalent of about 200 million tons of oil since the early 1970s, according to Economy Ministry data. It was able to maintain that level even during the country's boom years of the 1970s and 1980s, as the economy doubled, when adjusted for inflation, to $5 trillion.
Japan's strides in efficiency are clearest in heavy industries like steel, which are the biggest consumers of power. Over the past 36 years, the Japanese steel industry has invested about $45 billion in developing energy-saving technologies, according to the Japan Iron and Steel Federation, an industry group.
The results are visible at the sprawling Keihin mill on Tokyo Bay, operated by Japan's No. 2 steel maker, JFE Steel. Massive steel ducts snake from the blast furnaces and surrounding buildings. These capture heat and gases that had previously been released into the air or burned off as waste. Now, they are used to power generators that produce 90 percent of the electricity used by the plant. (The Keihin plant's main fuel remains the coal used to heat its huge blast furnaces.)
Such innovations allow the mill to produce a ton of steel using 35 percent less energy than three decades ago, said Yoshitsugu Iino, group leader of JFE Steel's climate change policy group. Iino calculates that if the global steel industry adopted Japanese conservation measures, it could slash carbon emissions by some 300 million tons a year, equal to the greenhouses gases released annually by Australia.
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J.H. Crawford Carfree Cities
- As a Japanese-English translator, I frequently have to translate
reports to shareholders or potential investors issued by Japanese
companies. It is striking that every one of the reports I have
translated contains a section on how the company is using less energy
than the previous year, recycling x percent of its used products,
replacing environmentally unfriendly raw materials, and reducing its
waste stream by y percent. It doesn't matter what the company
manufactures: it boasts about its environmental efforts, down to
keeping its offices warm in summer and cool in winter and making all
the workers unplug their office equipment when they go home for the day.
Oh, and they just opened another train line in northern Tokyo to serve
a previously underserved area. I think I may have already mentioned
the bicycle parking garages that began turning up at major train
stations about five or ten years ago.
Forty years ago, Japan was notorious for Minamata disease and
unbreathable air. They're not perfect by any means, but they're a
great example of what a nation can accomplish if it makes
environmentalism a priority.