Tuesday :: Jan 9, 2007

Where Energy Conservation Actually Works

by Mary

I was talking to a colleague of mine in Japan yesterday about energy conservation. He tells me that Prius' are more popular in the US than in Japan, partly because of the expense, but also because he thinks Americans are more environmentally conscious. That might be so, but in the ways that really matter, the Japanese use energy more efficiently than any other developed country in the world and this is the most important way to help the environment today.

This weekend the New York Times had a piece about how the Japanese have become so energy efficient and what that says for their future. One thing the Japanese have done is exactly what the Energize America plan calls for: trying a lot of different things because the answer isn't a single silver bullet, but lots of little actions that lead to a whole lot of savings.

Japan is the most energy-efficient developed country on earth, according to most specialists, who say it is much better prepared than the United States to prosper in an era of higher global energy prices. And if there is any lesson that Japan can offer to Americans, they say, it is that there is no one fix-all solution to living with oil above $50 a barrel.


Japan’s obsession with conservation stems from an acute sense of insecurity in a resource-poor nation that imports most its energy from the volatile Middle East, a fact driven home here by the 1970s shocks. The guiding hand of government has also played a role, forcing households and companies to conserve by raising the cost of gasoline and electricity far above global levels. Taxes and price controls make a gallon of gasoline in Japan currently cost about $5.20, twice America’s more market-based prices.

As this article says, the Japanese have been successful with their campaign because they've effectively harnessed individuals, businesses and the government to work on the problem together. Furthermore, they are benefitting by building a very lucrative business that will be viable for a very long time.

Higher energy prices have also created strong domestic demand in Japan for more conventional and new energy-saving products of all sorts. That has spurred the invention and development of things like low-energy washing machines and televisions and high-mileage cars and hybrid vehicles, experts say. Japanese factories also learned how to cut energy use and become among the most efficient in the world.

Companies like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are now reaping the benefits in booming overseas sales of their highly efficient electric turbines, steel blast furnaces and other industrial machinery, particularly in the United States. The environment ministry forecasts that exports will help turn energy conservation into a $7.9 billion industry in Japan by 2020, about 10 times its size in 2000.

Finally, they've changed their expectations so they can live frugally on energy which is the final piece that will allow them to live in a world where energy is a precious resource. As Bill McKibben wrote in the Sierra Club Magazine, ultimately, the challenge that faces us is to reinvent our society so that we can live for more than just ourselves. In fact, McKibben believes that it was this even more than the great ideas that came out of the dkos Energize America project that made it so valuable.

Indeed, though he might not phrase it quite this way, Guillet is describing what could be the most useful technology of all, the one Americans have all but forgotten: the technology of community. If climatologists are right that we need to bring the world's carbon dioxide emissions at least 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 to stabilize the climate, we're unlikely to succeed with new equipment alone. We need new attitudes and behaviors, not new lightbulbs and reactors.

The Japanese have shown us that it is possible to prepare for a future where one uses a lot less energy, a future that can use the ideas and community brought together by a shared vision for a better world with a goal of a brighter future for our descendents. All we have to do is to engage our communities, our government, our businesses and ourselves to make it happen.

Mary :: 12:22 PM :: Comments (7) :: Digg It!