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Japan Sets Asian Benchmarck for Energy Efficiency

Japan has set the benchmark in energy efficiency that other Asian nations are aspiring to emulate. But Japan has also found that using energy wisely does not automatically solve the problem of greenhouse gas emissions - the same problem that will be the focus of the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali. Naomi Martig reports from VOA's Asia News Center in Hong Kong.

In Japan, energy-efficiency is not just a government policy. It is a mindset, created in large part by high utility costs in a country that has few natural fuel resources of its own. From re-using hot bath water to keeping just one room heated during the winter, many Japanese have been raised to minimize energy consumption.

Technology is one of Japan's greatest strengths in conserving energy. A glimpse into a typical Japanese home shows energy-efficient home appliances, from refrigerators that buzz if the door is left open too long, to machines that convert hydrogen into electricity in order to heat water. Such products have higher price tags, but they use energy more efficiently, and bring down utility costs.

As a result, Japan is considered one of the most energy-efficient countries in the world. The country was also host in 1996 to the conference that produced the Kyoto Protocol, which requires developed nations to cut climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, and encourages developing nations to do so.

And yet, for all its good intentions, the country is falling far behind in its promise to cut its own emissions.

Japan pledged that by 2012, its greenhouse emissions would be six percent below the level in 1990.

But Kotaro Kawamata, deputy director of the Climate Policy Division at Japan's Environment Ministry, says the country's emissions are currently almost eight percent above the 1990 level. He says Japan is going to have a difficult time reaching its Kyoto goal.

"Actually quite hard, difficult situation we have now," said Kawamata. "We have commitment to six-percent reduction, so it means we need to reduce almost 14 percent compared to the 1990 level."

Japan has focused in large part on recycling and regulating industrial pollutants to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases.

The country also incinerates more than 77 percent of its trash, instead of placing it in landfills.

Incineration used to be seen as an environmentally friendly policy. But Komichi Ikeda, deputy director of the Environmental Research Institute in Tokyo, notes that the country's 1,800 incinerators add to overall gas emissions.

Ikeda says some incinerators generate electricity, but the effect on the country's overall energy production is small.

Ikeda also says Japan's energy-efficient culture is beginning to change. She says while technology has resulted in energy-saving products, it has also led to people wanting a more luxurious lifestyle - leading to more pollution.

"Each room has room air conditioners, various IT [information technology] electricity, PCs [personal computers], mobile phones and everything," she said. "So our technology advantage was set off by the lots of automobiles, lots of appliances used in daily lives in each household."

Japan's concern for the environment dates back to the 1970's, after a series of pollution-related health problems gained widespread publicity.

Teruyoshi Hiyamizu is director of the Environment Cooperation Office in Japan's Ministry of Environment. He says that in the '70's, the government began punishing factories that did not abide by new environmental standards. This kind of strict enforcement, he says, eventually led to improved conditions.

However, he says the government soon realized that other factors contributing to environmental degradation were going to be much more difficult to control.

"After that the pollution was caused not only from factories, but also from our lives itself, like from automobile, from household waste, the use of chemical substances," said Hiyamizu.

At the same time, Japan was hit by massive increases in the price of imported oil. The government realized it had to reduce energy use to protect not only the environment, but also the economy.

The government says Japan's energy efficiency has improved by more than 30 percent since 1973.

But pollution is now a regional concern. Pollution from China, for example, is spreading over the entire region.

The Environment Ministry's Kawamata says tackling environmental issues means working with other countries. He says Japan is promoting a "co-benefit" approach with its neighbors to deal with problems related to climate change.

"Now we have cooperation with China, and also try to establish it with Indonesia," he said. "We've already had joint declaration with Indonesia, Malaysia, India, on co-benefit approach."

Japan is still the leader in the field. To put the situation in economic terms, Japan uses only one-ninth as much energy as China to produce one unit of GDP. It uses one-third as much energy as the United States to produce that same economic unit.

But if the goals on emissions are to be met, that will not be good enough. Japan, and other countries, will have to find new ways of reducing mankind's effects on the climate. As Kotaro Kawamata says, that is the challenge facing Japan today.