by Luke Poliszcuk

Japan is not exactly globally renowned for being an environmentally friendly nation. In fact, the whaling agenda in Japan probably sets it well down the list of your average Western environmentalist’s favorite countries. It does not have a wealth of natural tourist destinations, and despite being host of the UN COP10 conference on biodiversity in Nagoya this October, Japan has had mixed success in maintaining biodiversity and ecosystems in its natural states. However, there are areas where Japan acts as a leader in not only the Asian region, but globally as well.

The World’s Most Energy Efficient Economy

One of the world’s best-kept secrets, Japan has consistently ranked as the most energy efficient economy in the world. According to Forbes magazine, Japan has an energy intensity rating of just 4,500 British thermal units (BTUs) per US dollar of GDP. European countries ranked closely behind Japan, with Denmark a close second at 4,845 BTUs. For comparison, the US used double the energy of Japan with 9,000 BTUs per dollar and China used an astounding 35,000 BTUs. It is said that if the rest of the world had the same level of energy efficiency as Japan, total energy use would decrease by a factor of seven.

This efficiency is largely thanks to government and industry initiatives enacted after the first oil shock in the 1970s, such as the Top Runner program for energy efficient appliances launched in 1998. However, the Japanese cultural disapproval of mottainai (waste) has also contributed strongly to both energy and resource efficiency and probably plays a strong role in the high recycling rates both on the domestic and industrial scales.

Hybrids and Other Eco-Friendly Cars

The prime area where Japan clearly leads the world is in eco-friendly automobile technology. Not only do Japanese manufactured cars have a history of world-leading fuel efficiency, they have also significantly influenced the average consumer and provide an eco-light balance to the heavy cars traditionally produced by the Detroit ‘big three.’

So far the eco-friendly car market has been dominated by hybrids, such as Toyota’s Prius and Honda’s Insight. But for the next generation of eco-cars, Mitsubishi and Nissan have made big bets on all-electric vehicles, with the Mitsubishi iMiev already on sale in Japan and Nissan’s Leaf set to roll out in the US in December. Considering the fact that Nissan took 6,635 reservations for its Leaf electric sedan in less than three days, these bets may just pay off.

Green Information Technology

Another area in which Japan is clearly a leader, and which has been receiving significant international attention, is green IT. At a recent computing forum held in Singapore, Hideaki Sugiura, Director of the IT Project Office at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) noted that the Japanese government is pursuing green government cloud computing projects. And according to FutureGov Asia Pacific, green IT promises to reduce CO2 emissions in Japan by 130 million tons by 2025, around ten percent of total 2007 emissions. Twenty million tons of reductions are projected to come from more energy efficient IT systems, while the majority of the reductions, around 110 million tons, are projected to come from IT advances leading to the conservation of energy in sectors such as residential homes, commercial properties, transportation and manufacturing.

Green Buildings, Renewable Energy and More

In the US, the LEED green building standard is starting to gain traction with mainstream companies, whereas here in Japan it is still relatively unknown. However, Japan has its own national green buildings standard, CASBEE, and buildings here tend to be relatively efficient, with a national and local government focus on areas such as energy and resource use, conservation of the natural environment, and abatement of the urban heat island effect.

Japan is also a leader in renewable energy technologies, and boasts several of the world’s leading wind and solar companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy, Kyocera and Honda. Unfortunately, this technological superiority has not translated into a large renewable energy market at home, with just one percent of the nation’s energy coming from renewables. However, the DPJ recently announced a commitment by the government of Japan to reduce CO2 emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels and to introduce 20 percent renewable energy by 2020. These are undoubtedly ambitious targets, but ones which will be sure to contribute to a revitalized green economy and ensure Japan remains one of the world’s leading green economies.