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Kai Ryssdal: Much of the discussion in Copenhagen is going to be about rich countries versus poor. Developed economies versus those that are still developing. Who’s going to cut their emissions? By how much? And just plain — how. How are they going to do it? Japan offers some pretty good lessons. From KQED, Rob Schmitz reports.
ROB SCHMITZ: Meet the Sakaki family: dad Hiroshi, mom Yukiko, and three year-old daughter, May.
The Sakakis have a heater in their home, but they prefer to wear sweaters. Their power strips have individual on/off switches so their appliances won’t waste energy. They only buy energy-efficient lights. Each night, they share bath water. Their bathtub talks to them. It warns them when they’re wasting energy.
The Sakakis aren’t rabid environmentalists. They’re just an average Japanese family living in Tokyo, and they do whatever it takes to save energy. Energy costs twice as much here as in the U.S. That’s because Japan imports nearly all its fossil fuels. The lessons most Americans are starting to learn from rising oil prices are ones the Japanese learned three decades ago, after the steep oil price hikes of the 1970s.
Economist Yukari Yamashita recalls the oil price surge had Japan’s economy on the brink of collapse.
YUKARI YAMASHITA: The prices of everything went up because of the oil crisis, so everybody was aware that we have to do something, otherwise our life itself won’t be sustainable.
Yamashita says it was as if the country were at war. The government held emergency meetings, quickly passing a series of conservation laws. It forced factories to replace old, inefficient boilers and assembly-line machinery with new energy-saving equipment. New energy taxes funded programs like low-interest loans for companies that made industry more energy efficient. As a result, Japan, the world’s second-largest economy, now consumes one-half the energy — per capita — of the United States.
At a factory near the city of Kyoto, “singing” robots carry parts from one assembly line to another. Nowhere have these energy-saving measures had more impact than on Japan’s industrial sector, where current energy use is on par with levels 40 years ago; this, despite dramatic economic growth since then.
Air conditioner-maker Daikin owns this plant. Under Japanese law, manufacturers have to become 1 percent more energy efficient every year, and dedicate at least one staff member to overseeing this effort. Daikin has eight.
Also, manufacturers have to make sure that any new appliance they put on the market is at least as efficient as the best current model. Back in his office, manager Shinya Okada says he disliked the law when it was passed 12 years ago.
SHINYA OKADA: But now we find it valuable to compete with one another and develop technology not only to meet the strict government standards, but to cater to the needs of our customers.
And that makes Japanese companies more competitive, says Llewelyn Hughes, Japan expert at George Washington University. He remembers when it was fashionable to say “America innovates, Japan imitates.”
LLEWELYN HUGHES: Perhaps an opportunity exists to go the other way. That is, to learn from Japan; learn the lessons, which have already been learned within Japanese national economy about how to better promote energy efficiency and also improve competitiveness in this particular sphere of the economy.
Japan’s got a head start: A recent global survey showed Japan owns 40 percent of the world’s patents in green technology. The U.S. came in second with just 12 percent.
In Tokyo, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.
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