Sustainability -- Approaching the Tipping Point

By Darrell Nelson

Is it time the government turned more attention to sustainability?

Over the last few years, certain buzzwords have sprung up concerning the problems we face with the environment, one of these being “sustainability.” Pressure groups and the media report on a changing world that is saturated with waste and gasses due to the heavy toll modern life places on it. The population of the earth has grown from 1.5 billion at the beginning of the 20th century, to more than 6 billion in 2008. The balance between human consumption and the earth’s natural capacity to absorb our waste is rapidly approaching a “tipping point” where the effects, as believed by some, will be irreversible. Our impact on the world has more than tripled since 1961, with our “footprint” exceeding the world’s ability to regenerate by about 25 percent. So just how are these extraordinary trends on a global scale affecting Japan?

Illustration of Sustainability

One way in which Japan’s situation can be analyzed is by looking at its food self-sufficiency rate. Dr. Kouyu Furasawa, a professor of ecological economics at Kokugakuin University, recently conducted research into this field. Each year, approximately 700-800 million tons of goods, including food, are imported into Japan. With the West heavily influencing and changing the Japanese diet, and the shrinking of agricultural areas as towns expand, today its food self-sufficiency rate is only 40 percent. Compare this to just 40 years ago—when dishes were mainly cooked using local harvests and rice fields were common breaks in the landscape—and the rate was set at over 70 percent. This reliance on imports means that Japan accepts one fifth of the total amount of goods traveling the world by sea, which is about 4 to 4.5 billion tons. Conversely, it takes up a mere 0.2 percent of the world’s land and around 2 percent of the world’s population. Therefore it is clear how much energy and resources Japan consumes, which is particularly disturbing when considering that the country’s rate of energy self-sufficiency has seen even more drastic changes compared with food.

1960s Japan was roughly 56 percent energy self-sufficient but over the years, it has seen figures plummet to 14 percent in 1970, 6 percent in 1980, 5 percent in 1990 and at last count, around 4 percent in 2000. The increasing demand for energy came as lifestyles shifted away from the traditional style to post-war Japan where an emphasis was put on technological advances and consumption was promoted. In fact, the WWF Living Planet Report now puts Japan’s total ecological footprint at 5th in the world, occupying 4.4 global hectares (gha) per person and running an ecological reserve deficit of -3.6 gha/ person (table 1). To put it simply, if all the people in the world adopted a lifestyle the same as modern Japan, we would need about two and a half earths; if the lifestyle were that of the American people, five or six earths would be required. So what do these figures actually mean? “All this information is vital to address humanity’s biggest challenge,” says the WWF, “how can we live well while living within the capacity of one Earth?” The figures are used to help establish baselines, set targets, and monitor achievements and failures. However, according to the UN, if we continue with this slow yet steady economic and population growth. Then indicators suggest that by the mid-century, humanity’s demand on nature will be twice the biosphere’s productive capacity. If Japan continues at the same rate of ecological deficit as at present, then the prospect of the exhaustion of ecological assets becomes increasingly likely.

  Ecological demand and supply in selected countries, 2003
Ecological Footprint
(million 2003 gha)
Per capita
Ecological Footprint
World 14073 2.2 1.8 -0.4
USA 2819 9.6 4.7 -4.8
China 2152 1.6 0.8 -0.9
India 802 0.8 0.4 -0.4
Russia 631 4.4 6.9 2.5
Japan 556 4.4 0.7 -3.6
Brazil 383 2.1 9.9 7.8
Germany 375 4.5 1.7 -2.8
France 339 5.6 3.0 -2.6
UK 333 5.6 1.6 -4.0
Mexico 265 2.6 1.7 -0.9
Canada 240 7.6 14.5 6.9
Italy 239 4.2 1.0 -3.1

Table 1

So is it all doom and gloom for Japan when it comes to the environment and sustainability? Not according to Junko Edahiro, a refreshingly energetic and passionate lady who, in 2002, along with other collaborators, founded Japan for Sustainability (JFS), a nonprofit environmental communication platform which provides information on Japan’s activities promoting sustainability and publishes weekly digests and monthly newsletters to over 7,000 subscribers in 179 countries. “I believe we have to think about sustainability on three different levels: Government, Corporate and NPO or citizen action,” says Edahiro. “In Japan we are seeing large companies such as Seiko Epsom and Inax putting into effect programs to cut CO2 by as much as 90 percent by 2050,” she says. Asahi now operates a zero emission policy where all of its 370,000 tons of by-products are recycled, providing organic fertilizer, cattle feed and even building supplies. Edahiro continues, “alongside this, local municipalities and communities are becoming increasingly aware of the challenges and problems Japan faces in terms of sustainability.” Certainly on this level, Japan seems to be moving in the right direction, with “Eco-Towns” starting to take hold throughout the land. The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) comments that, “in Japan, eco-towns are being promoted in order to build a resource recycling-type economic society, which limits waste while encouraging recycling. Eco-town projects are led by local authorities in cooperation with local industry and the public, and strive to realize the development of an advanced, environmentally conscious sustainable community.” At present, 86 communities are currently moving closer towards self-sufficiency with these eco-town projects, implementing wind, solar and biomass energy production on a local level.

But perhaps this is the problem; that these initiatives are all currently undertaken at “a local level” and funded through local channels, not within part of a grander government- funded program. In Edahiro’s eyes, some of the problem lies with the first level of her sustainable model, the government, or more precisely its slow ability to enforce change and take action. “There is a high level of awareness among the Japanese communities of the need to make a change and do something, but the action seen by the government is slow. Despite this, however, they are beginning to take notice as more and more businesses and communities lead the way,” she says. In fact the Japanese government’s effectiveness, while having individuals working hard to trumpet the cause for sustainability with the likes of the Minister of the Environment Ichiro Kamoshita, is severely limited due to an inadequate budget. “What I would like to see” continues Edahiro, “is the formation of a specific department set up for climate change as in the UK, with more funding and power to focus on the problems at hand.”

It is true that compared to some Western systems, Japan is falling behind in its attempt to become a more sustainable country. Another system Junko Edahiro would like to see implemented is something along the lines of the Feed-In-Tariff system currently in effect in Germany and Spain. Here, the principle is a revenue-neutral way of making the installation of renewable energy more appealing, as utility companies purchase the electricity generated from renewable sources at above market prices. If such systems came into place, Japan could slowly start to see energy self-sufficiency rates crawl back up.

This Feed-In-Tariff system could certainly have some appeal in Japan, as one area where the country leads the rest of the world is in Green Technology. Companies such as Sony, Mitsubishi and Sanyo are leaders in innovative technologies concerned with renewable energy production, but due to the lack of incentives from the government, this technology has no market in Japan and is forced to market abroad instead. What Japan has to do to turn this around is to see legal restrictions passed regarding the environment. The failure of the government in the public sector and the limitations of market fundamentalism mean that the balance is currently out of sync and the community and NPO level is being relied upon too heavily. The Minister for the Environment commented recently that, “consumers have the power to drive the transition to a low-carbon society through the choices in the goods, products and services they use. However, strong government leadership is required through the delivery of policies and legislation that will enable the removal of high-carbon intensive choices for consumers, while creating positive benefits for consumers in making low-carbon choices.”

Japan is very fond of its “kotowaza” (proverbs), and one of Junko Edahiro’s favorites is “Seoi mizu,” literally translated as “water you carry.” She explains that “the idea is that when you are born, you carry with you all the water you will use during your lifetime...if we use something wastefully, we will pay for it later in life, therefore every drop is precious and to be used carefully.” Perhaps it is time for Japan’s government to start to take notice of the water it is spilling and start providing more sustainable initiatives and incentives, and lead a public who are trying to look after their own water. JI

Sustainable Business is no longer an option but a necessity to stay ahead in the market. The Anaheim University Kisho Kurokawa Green Institute, in Minami Aoyama, Tokyo, currently runs one of the largest selections of sustainable courses to choose from including an MBA in Sustainable Management, the Green MBA, a Diploma in Sustainable Management and a Green Certificate in Sustainability. For more information see or contact 03-3498-2008 for an information session.

Darrell Nelson is the International Liaison Office Director Kisho Kurokawa Green Institute.