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Green Growth and Japan - Efforts to Restore the Environment

By Carin Holroyd
January 13, 2023
Japan is no stranger to the urgent global debates about the uneasy relationship between economic development, standards of living and environmental protection. In the wake of its rapid re-industrialization in the 1950s and 1960s, Japan suffered from poor environmental planning and the profound ecological consequences of rapid economic growth. The nation’s national income grew dramatically, but so did the damage to the environment.
Outdoor photo of downtown Tokyo with a rainbow in the sky
The country cleaned up its act – and its landscapes – in subsequent decades. From being criticized for its poor air quality, polluted rivers and poor industrial environmental practices, the country had, by the late 1990s, become known for its impressive ecological transformations. By the last decade of the 20th century, Japan was reaching out to other nations to share its pollution reduction and remediation strategies. Tokyo, once the poster child for unchecked industrial development, was lauded for the quality of its urban environment and its environmental industries and practices.

As an energy poor nation, Japan has been preoccupied since the 1930s with the identification of long-term energy supplies, a concern that accelerated after the energy shocks of the 1970s. The country was an early investor in research and innovation into photovoltaics, fuel cells, wind power and other forms of renewable energy. Prior to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, Japan had ambitious goals for cutting its emissions through the aggressive expansion of nuclear power, then projected to reach 50% of the Japanese energy mix by 2030.
Wind farm on the Japan coast
In the 21st century, Japan has shown both real strengths on the environmental side and some clear challenges as the national government and its allies in the business community seek to maintain prosperity while shifting to renewable energy and a conservation-focused approach . The government developed a strategy that can be described as "Green Growth" -- although the policy package was not given a formal title – that sought to draw together two previously disparate strands in national planning: environmental sustainability and economic development. To a significant degree, for the past two decades, the Japanese government and the national business community believed that the country’s future lay in the development of environmental products and services that will improve the environment at home and abroad while simultaneously contributing to general economic growth and prosperity. At the same time, Japan’s national innovation strategies shifted from industry-led and science-based pursuit of economic opportunity to society-focused concerns about long-term sustainability and quality of life. There is a significant body of thought that holds that improving the Japanese and global environment can be good for Japanese business, ushering in the latest phase of innovative-based business development and general prosperity.

The pursuit of ecologically-sound economic development required a variation of the Japanese model of state-business collaboration. The Japanese government clearly believes that the mobilization of the private sector is the key to long-term growth and sustainability. Much of its effort to support the private sector’s green innovation efforts have been done through the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), which facilitates research and development projects with a commercial focus. Projects have focused on Smart Grid electrical systems, Electricity Storage Technology for Next Generation Vehicles, Fuel Cells and Hydrogen-driven vehicles, Next Generation Thermal Power Plants, and Water Saving Recycling Systems. In many of these areas, Japan is both a technological innovator and a leader in the commercial application of emerging technologies.

At the national and municipal level, Japanese governments have implemented a range of environmental programs and initiatives. These include a variety of consumer awareness programs, green purchasing practices to make governments “early adopter” and help establish the viability of Japanese environmental businesses. The country imposed some of the world’s most demanding recycling requirements – making companies responsible for the full lifecycle of their products – promoted the construction of some of the most substantial and energy efficient buildings in the world and used its Top Runner program to promote the development of energy efficient consumer appliances. The country has a wide variety of “green” ICT (information and communication technologies) installations, including impressive Smart Home construction that is sharply reducing the ecological footprint of Japanese households.

Recent developments have demonstrated the long-term challenges associated with environmental sustainability for a resource-poor country like Japan. At one extreme, the nation has made remarkable investments in potentially game-changing environmental technologies including nuclear fusion, space-based energy-systems, off-shore wind generating technologies, and tidal energy production. While most of these expensive technological gambles will not likely pay off in the short-term, the Japanese effort at developing green growth capabilities remains among the most impressive in the world.

Nonetheless, Japan is not really seen as an environmental leader. The post-Fukushima energy crisis led, in the minds of many critics, the country to backslide environmentally. All 54 of Japan’s nuclear plants were taken off-line for safety checks and public opposition slowed their restart. As a result, Japan turned to oil and natural gas and, to the real dismay of environmentalists, even coal. Plans now call for nuclear energy to form about 20% of Japan’s energy mix, with a target for other renewables of 23% by 2030. Japan’s target for net zero emissions is 2050, similar to the vast majority of countries that have made a net zero pledge. Japan is the second largest user per capita of single-use plastic packaging in the world and a major exporter of plastics waste. More plastics recycling facilities are being developed and research into biodegradable plastic is ongoing. Nonetheless Japan’s 2030 target of a 25% reduction in single use plastics is seen as unimpressive in international terms.

That the world needs more environmentally responsible commerce and industrial production is now uniformly understood. Many countries like to believe in the idea of green growth, that ecological change can be connected to economic development. Japan has made significant strides in this direction, searching for investments and innovations that produce solid environmental improvements while also producing jobs and commercializable products. To a surprising degree, the well-being of the people of Japan, as well as the environmental sustainability of the planet depends on the success of Japan’s bold and comprehensive strategies for alternative energies, consumption reduction, recycling, data-driven monitoring and management of energy usages, and both industrial and commercial practices.
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