The Japanese Greenwash

The birthplace of the Prius and the Kyoto Protocol hasn't lived up to its green reputation in recent years. Can a new government put Japan back on track?


The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), fresh from its landslide victory in the Aug. 30 elections, has made a lot of promises and has much to prove, its green policies being a case in point. New Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama made an impressive international debut at the recent U.N. General Assembly, pledging to cut CO2 emissions 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, a welcome initiative in the run-up to December’s Copenhagen environmental summit. His DPJ embraces far more progressive positions on the environment than its predecessor, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), more than tripling the 8 percent cuts it pledged. Predictably, the Japanese business community has criticized this ambitious goal, claiming it will stifle economic recovery and growth, sacrificing jobs in a quixotic quest to protect the environment.

Hatoyama’s pledge — long on vision, vague on details — is an opportunity for Japan to demonstrate leadership on a crucial global issue. The pledge is conditional on other major emitters getting on board, ratcheting up pressure on the United States, China, and India to do their part. While the caveat gives Hatoyama some wiggle room, it also opens the door for backsliding. Meanwhile, the initiative puts Japan into the environmental limelight, a place it might not want to be, given its surprisingly poor record on meeting previous pledges on CO2 reductions.

Certainly, the country that brought us the Kyoto Protocol, built the Toyota Prius, and produces only 4 percent of global CO2 emissions (compared with 20 percent each for the United States and China) must be doing something right. Japan’s factories are energy efficient, and in the three decades since 1979, its GDP has doubled while its industrial-sector energy consumption has remained flat. In areas such as mass transit, Japan is miles ahead of the United States.

But Japan’s environmental record it not as stellar as it may appear. Japan has not met its Kyoto Protocol target of a 6 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels, instead chalking up a 9 percent rise since then. In terms of carbon emissions per capita, Japan is at about one-half U.S. levels, and even with Britain, Germany, and South Korea. It exceeds Spain, Italy, France, and Sweden. Surprisingly, household emissions of CO2 have increased a dramatic 40 percent in Japan since 1990 though the country has embraced what is perceived as a relatively green lifestyle, with extensive recycling and widespread residential use of solar energy panels.

Japan relies on oil for 48 percent of its energy needs, the second highest level in the OECD after Italy. In Japan, coal-fired plants account for nearly 30 percent of total power supply, up from only 10 percent 30 years ago. Coal releases more CO2 when burned than oil or natural gas, so increases in its use are not consistent with achieving the goal of a low-carbon society, even if new clean-burning technologies make coal-fired plants more environmentally friendly. Surprisingly, primary energy consumption was increasing in Japan by 2.3 percent between 1997 and 2007 while declining in Germany by 8.7 percent.

In recent years Japan has not only surrendered its lead in solar power, but has also made very little progress on other renewable energy sources such as wind, waves, and biofuels. The LDP target for renewable energy use in 2014 was less than 2 percent of Japan’s total energy supply — not much compared with Denmark, which generates 20 percent of its power from wind alone based on generous subsidies and tax incentives. As of 2007 the share of electricity generated by all renewable energy sources in Japan, excluding large-scale hydropower, stood at 0.7 percent, while in Germany the same number stands at 14 percent.


In 2008, German Watch’s Climate Change Performance Index ranked Japan only 42nd among the top 56 CO2-emitting countries based on a weighted average of emission trends, levels, and climate policy.

The LDP deserves a lot of the blame for Japan’s lost momentum. In recent years the government has relied on market forces and voluntary reductions to cut emissions. This approach contrasts with the EU’s mandatory emissions cuts and "feed-in tariffs" that obligate utilities to purchase target amounts of renewable energy at above-market rates set by the government. This promotes the use of renewable energy while achieving economies of scale. It is encouraging that the DPJ favors adopting feed-in tariffs because the record shows that the LDP approach has not worked.

There are other signs that the situation is improving. The government’s response to the economic crisis this year includes incentives for consumers to purchase fuel-efficient cars and appliances that use less electricity, a resounding success that suggests how much more the government could be doing. There are ambitious plans to create green collar jobs, some 3 million by 2020. The DPJ is looking for renewable energy to generate 10 percent of supply by 2020, but this depends on developing a "smart" power grid to handle and store renewable energy and expanding feed-in tariffs beyond the one limited to solar power that’s currently under consideration.

The DPJ is encouraging citizens to join in the effort as well. The government is subsidizing household adoption of eco-friendly hydrogen fuel cells that generate electricity and heat water. Solar power generation is expanding now that the government has reinstated a subsidy providing up to 500,000 yen ($5,000) to defray installation costs for households. Home builders are now much more conscious about energy efficiency, and new electrical appliances feature large energy savings. The "cool biz" campaign urging workers to ditch their ties and wear lighter clothing in the summer and tackling the heat island effect by topping roofs with greenery may have only a small impact, but should get people to rethink lifestyle and design issues affecting the environment.

Encouraging as the DPJ’s agenda may be, the government will still have to battle big business to implement it. Analysts assert that vested interests in Japan’s utilities industry and the nuclear lobby have prevailed on fiscal and regulatory authorities to block investments and subsidies targeting renewables.

About two-thirds of the national energy research and development budget is devoted to nuclear power. Japan currently operates 55 nuclear power plants — up from 32 in 1987 — that account for nearly 35 percent of its electricity needs. The government plans to raise the share of energy generated by nuclear power to 41 percent by 2014.

With dwindling reserves of fossil fuels, high prices, and growing concern about green house gases generated by consumption of these fuels, the prospects for the nuclear power industry have brightened considerably, and shifting more energy to renewable sources will be a tough fight. Public opinion, however, is leery about boosting nuclear energy reliance due to a series of accidents in recent years and a major scandal over falsifying repair and maintenance records to cut costs.

Nippon Keidanren, Japan’s leading business lobby, has criticized the CO2 targets for being overly ambitious and advocates a 4 percent decrease in emissions by 2020 from 2005 levels, meaning a 4 percent increase from 1990 levels. It describes the DPJ target as mission impossible because Japan’s factories are already some of the cleanest and most efficient in the world. Hatoyama is going to discover just how hard it is to lead and govern, and we will find out if he has the requisite political skills and toughness.

Under the LDP, Japan’s environmental strengths were lost in translation. The DPJ, however, is serious about creating green collar jobs and tapping Japan’s green technology prowess. Team Hatoyama understands that exports of green technology and conservation know-how to China and India could be very lucrative for Japan. On the home front, the DPJ is sensibly backing away from its campaign pledges to eliminate highway tolls and cut gasoline taxes, but still needs to clarify many details of its environmental blueprint.

Can the affable Hatoyama answer his critics by leading a new green revolution, a role that requires making hard choices, stepping on toes, and taking the heat? You’d think no; but a year ago nobody was predicting the DPJ would massacre the LDP at the polls or that he would be premier. The new government now has to translate its laudable vision into tangible progress.

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