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Can Japan Lead the Green Growth Movement? Author Carin Holroyd Explores Japan's Efforts to Match its Climate Change Commitments
Guest post by Carin Holroyd
Governments around the world are obsessed with the challenge of combining two essential public policy objectives: addressing global climate change and building wealth and national prosperity. The industrial growth of the past half century has caused widespread, perhaps irreparable, damage to the global ecology, ushering in an era of uncertainty and climate paranoia. But no societies have yet indicated that they are prepared to accept a sharp reduction in their standard of living in order to slow, if not reverse, the pace of environmental degradation.
In this situation, it is not surprising that the pursuit of green growth—economic expansion focused on the production and distribution of climate-saving technologies, products and services—has become an international priority. In the ideal formulation, new industries and businesses, employing thousands of people, would emerge in the environmental technology and new energy sectors with the products contributing far more to the amelioration of climate change than they would consume in energy and other resources. This is obviously attractive to national and regional governments, which seek highly skilled, highly paid work in viable, internationally engaged businesses while also providing leadership on addressing the challenges of global climate change.
In Green Japan. I explore Japan's efforts to match its climate change commitments, which were transformed by the triple disasters in March 2011 and the near collapse of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, with its desire for continued economic prosperity and employment opportunities for its citizens. Like most countries, Japan does not have an official "green growth" strategy; rather the country has made formidable investments in a variety of current and future technologies while using an array of public policy instruments to promote environmentally-sound energy and resource use within the country.
That Japan would be at the cutting edge of environmental technologies is hardly a surprise. The country adapted well to the ecological excesses of the 1950s and 1960s, bringing in dramatic improvements in air and water quality, some of the world's most aggressive recycling and environmental signaling policies, and investing heavily in futurist energy systems from nuclear fusion to a proposed "lunar ring" that would transmit power from stations on the moon to receiving units on earth. Japan has one of the world's best commuter transit systems, with large percentages of the population using subways, buses and trains on a regular basis. Japan’s interest in energy efficient appliances and forms of transportation began after the oil shocks in the 1970s. The country’s lack of its own sources of energy and its resultant dependence on Middle Eastern oil made Japan painfully aware that it needed to diversify its sources of energy, limit energy use and develop new environmental technologies as much as possible. So, Japan has been pursuing strands of a green growth strategy for decades. It is the public policy lessons from this long term pursuit of green growth that I explore in Green Japan.
Manufacturing standards and consumer awareness campaigns have encouraged and required companies to arrange for full product recycling and major improvements in energy consumption, with the country becoming a world-leader in net positive house construction (homes that produce excess power for the grid) and urban environmental design. Even municipal authorities are active on the green growth file, developing local smart energy grids and encouraging innovations in urban design that they are then marketing internationally through eco-city initiatives.
In many ways, green growth symbolizes Japan’s attempt to reconcile two often competing elements of its national culture. The country’s penchant for industrial and manufacturing innovation is well-known as is its deep cultural affinity for nature, serenity and living in harmony with the natural world, value systems that were on international display during the 2005 Aichi World Fair. The government of Japan has called for active citizen engagement, through such initiatives as the old Team Minus 6% movement which encouraged/required offices to reduce heating and air conditioning usage, and other public displays of commitment to energy conservations. Japan’s development of its new energy and environmental technology sectors has employed a range of public policy initiatives and investments. There are lessons from these public policies that are useful for other governments, like Canada’s, that are interested in pursuing green growth.
But the path forward is difficult. Japan is serious about responding to climate change and has made a concerted effort to cut CO2 emissions. But the nation’s plans took a real hit in 3/11 when it was forced to close, temporarily, its entire nuclear power system. While the Japanese public hopes that the plants will remain shut, the government feels it may have no choice but to reopen many of the nuclear facilities to keep up with consumer and industrial demand. Japan’s forward-looking investments are wildly speculative and, at times, breath-taking, but few countries in the world are looking as seriously and systematically at long-term power supplies that could wean the industrial economy away from fossil fuels.
Japan is one of the world’s leading countries in the field of green growth. They lost an early lead in solar power production to Germany and, more recently, China, but continue to produce new products like energy-saving LED lights, hybrid, electric and hydrogen-fueled cars and trucks, creative large building designs (including the world’s largest wooden skyscraper which they hope will be the foundation for an “urban forest” inside Japan’s cities), and other market-based innovations that will keep Japan’s businesses strong, create international markets for their products and generate sustained national prosperity.
The world has a great deal at stake in the comparative success of the green growth movement in Japan and other countries. If effective and viable models of industrial and employment growth emerge, producing personal and collective prosperity while improving environmental outcomes and preventing further climate change, the global impact could be significant. Failure to combine environmental sustainability and economic growth would lead to an acceleration of climate change with all of the negative and unpredictable consequences of ecological transformation.
However, all countries cannot implement full green growth strategies without sparking a competitive industrial flurry that will increase consumption and the international environmental footprint. Japan, however, being one of the first and best in the field could reap sizeable economic and employment benefits, allowing it to dominate the field of environmental technologies as it has done in such sectors as automobiles and consumer electronics. If anything, Japan’s pursuit of green growth reveals the fundamental conundrum in environmental industrial policy, in which the desire for economic prosperity and opportunity continues to clash against the reality of a planet that is approaching its ecological limits.
Carin Holroyd is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Saskatchewan.