THE BLOG
06/17/2008 11:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Japan Poised as Green Leader

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's announcement that Japan will cut carbon emissions by 60-80 per cent by 2050 sets a serious tone for the upcoming G-8 Summit at Lake Toya, Japan.

Even if real action remains stymied in the lame duck days of the Bush administration, Japan's leadership sends a signal to the world that the rich industrialized countries -- whose emissions accumulated the "stock" of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that are causing global warming -- accept their responsibility. This is the precondition required for developing countries like China and India -- responsible for massive new "flows" of industrial exhaust -- to join any common global program beyond the Kyoto Protocol to stem climate change.

The summit comes in advance of the convergence of a major economic and geopolitical shift in the world.

Unlike past oil shocks, this current bout of price increases is here to stay. The long term demand trend for oil is ever upward because of rapid growth of India, China and the "rising rest." Though there will be dips, the price of oil is not likely to go down, only up. And up.

The next American president, whether Barack Obama or John McCain, will embrace the spirit of Kyoto, if not the actual protocol. Both of them have made this clear in their campaigns. This in turn will lead ultimately toward a global grand bargain in which the main emitters, including the US and China, agree to curb emissions. In exchange the rich nations will agree to the transfer of clean technology to the rising "flow" countries.

Japan is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this shift. While the world has been focused on the miracle of Chinese growth, the war in Iraq and terrorism, Japan has been engaging in a quiet revolution. It has become the incubator of the energy efficient technologies of the future.

Japan is the leading manufacturer and exporter of hybrid cars, most famously the Toyota Prius, which is selling like hotcakes in the United States. Honda has developed a hydrogen fuel cell car that is being prepared for mass production. Komatsu has just produced the world's first-ever
hybrid heavy machinery, a 20-ton excavator used in contstruction sites all across Asia.

Japan is responsible for 50 per cent of the world's solar power energy production. Japan uses 20 per cent less energy to produce a ton of steel than the US; 50 per cent less than China.

Innovations abound from capturing "ice energy" to more energy efficient plasma screens. Indeed, the facility that will house the media at the Lake Toya summit will be cooled by snow stored in thermal insulation instead of by air conditioning.

As America has moved toward a largely financial economy, exemplified by the sub-prime mortgage crisis, Japan retains the very manufacturing and engineering prowess the world needs to face the daunting challenge of climate change.

This fits Japan's historical profile well. Going back centuries, it has had something of a green identity. As Umehara Takeshi, the great Japanese anthropologist, has noted, the Shinto religion, in which man is not considered apart from nature, emerged from ancient Japan's "civilization of the forest."

In the 17th century, as Jared Diamond points out in his seminal book, Collapse, the Tokugawa Shogunate reforested Japan, denuded by development, and saved it from the kind of ecological catastrophe that struck the Mayans. Though one of the most densely populated countries in the world, 70 per cent of Japan today is covered by healthy forests.

And, of course, the namesake of the very Protocol which is the first global effort to come to grips with climate change, is Japan's ancient capital, Kyoto.

Beneath the surface of Japan's faddish consumer society, the frugal culture of an island nation that must wisely husband limited resources still lives. Today, we recognize that the Earth itself is an island. Taking Japan's lead, the whole planet would be wise to adopt that frugal sensibility, living intelligently instead of wastefully.