Is Japan Leaving the US Behind in Green Tech?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 7/04/2008 06:21:00 AM
While I have poked fun in the past at Thomas "flat world" Friedman, I must admit that he does have some good ideas. In a recent op-ed, Friedman repeated his idea that The Great American Project suitable for our milieu is clean technology. Unless you're a Lomborg cyborg, it is certainly plausible that going green will be a significant future source of enterprising activity. That the United States should take the lead in clean technologies is a no-brainer; even Barack Obama has harped on this theme. From the Obama 2008 website, we have this campaign pledge:
Obama will invest $150 billion over 10 years to advance the next generation of biofuels and fuel infrastructure, accelerate the commercialization of plug-in hybrids, promote development of commercial-scale renewable energy, invest in low-emissions coal plants, and begin the transition to a new digital electricity grid. A principal focus of this fund will be devoted to ensuring that technologies that are developed in the U.S. are rapidly commercialized in the U.S. and deployed around the globe.
As we all know, China is the country that faces some of the world's most difficult environmental problems. A few days ago, for instance, it was widely reported that Qingdao, the site of the sailing events for the 2008 Olympic Games, succumbed to yet another case of algal bloom. While we wait for the Obama enviro-platoon to arrive on the scene, TIME notes that Japan may be better placed--geographically and technologically--to address China's current environmental challenges. Despite the potential synergies, though, there are several historical grievances to overcome between these neighbours who haven't always gotten along:
It's hard to fathom China thanking Japan for anything. The relationship between the two Asian giants has been strained for decades and occasionally erupts into open hostility. Japan perceives China as a rising economic competitor and a rival for political influence in Asia. Many Chinese still believe Japan has never properly repented for the sins committed during its brutal invasion during the 1930s and '40s, during which the notorious Rape of Nanjing occurred. Only three years ago, that resentment exploded into anti-Japan demonstrations in several Chinese cities [I believe TIME is referring to then-Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi visiting the Yasukuni war shrine which China believes honours war criminals].
However, the potential synergies are plentiful. Like China, Japan's rapid industrialization caused environmental headaches not too long ago. Like China, Japan was also compelled to reduce its reliance on costly oil--especially after the 1973 and 1979 oil shocks:
Yet on the issue of the environment, the two nations have strong reasons to heal old wounds. China's wasteful use of energy and escalating environmental degradation threaten the sustainability of the country's economic boom. Japan, one of the most environmentally conscious countries in the industrialized world, is brimming with the know-how that can help ease China's problems. China badly requires Japanese technology in everything from advanced nuclear reactors to clean steel mills to hybrid cars; Japan has every incentive to sell that technology to China to generate new business for its otherwise sluggish economy. That's why the environment was a top topic of discussion when China's President Hu Jintao and Japan's Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda met in Tokyo in May. In a joint statement, they pledged to place "particular priority" on working together in green technologies. In a speech before Japan's chief business association, Nippon Keidanren, Hu said he hoped the two countries would make environmental protection "the new highlight of our economic cooperation..."

Not only does Japan have the technology and money to help China, India and the rest of emerging Asia reduce emissions, it also has the political will to share it. The government sees assistance as a way to bolster its waning influence in the Asian region, a phenomenon the Japanese people lament as "Japan passing." The country was once Asia's preeminent power as leader of the continent's miraculous economic renaissance, but that role is increasingly being usurped by a rising China. Miranda Schreurs, director of the Environmental Policy Research Center at the Free University of Berlin, says that Japan sees environmental protection "as a chance to improve its image within the region and to promote greater regional cooperation." Japan also has the experience necessary to transform developing economies from energy wasters to energy savers, since it, too, survived through its own era of environmental destruction. Much like China today, Japan in the 1950s and '60s placed modernizing industry and elevating incomes above protecting the environment. The air in Japanese cities was so laden with particulates that pedestrians wore masks. In the 1970s, the nation was also subjected to two oil price shocks, which exposed the vulnerability of the economy to the global oil market. A consensus formed that Japan needed to balance its growth with greater conservation and a nationwide effort was launched to reduce energy usage and clean up the environment.

The results are striking today: Japan uses one-eighth as much energy as China to generate a dollar's worth of GDP, to cite one example. "Japan was a front runner in economic development in Asia and suffered some bitter experiences," says Ichiro Kamoshita, Japan's Environment Minister. "Japan wants the countries that are now trying to develop to become prosperous without going through such bad experiences."

It's very interesting and timely stuff. There are also two more articles on a similar theme of Japan's Lessons for China" [1, 2]. Friedbama, take note--and maybe hasten your efforts.