For a few months last summer, Japan looked with unclouded eyes at the energy crisis it faces and actually did something about it, according to Indian environmental economist Manu V. Mathai.
It was a fleeting moment, he says, but the whole country joined an effort to conserve energy to cover the electricity shortages following the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
“It was an instance of collective decision, and a collective need to revisit what we mean by quality of life. The people decided that we can have a good life without having all the lights in Shibuya on,” says Mathai, a research fellow at the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies in Yokohama.
But he says the key challenge facing the country will be keeping its eyes open and following up on the achievements of 2011 after the moment of crisis has passed.
“We can do the same in less unfortunate circumstances, and with foresight, consciously and deliberately. We don’t have to wait for catastrophe to strike,” he says.
“Japan is very inventive. I marvel at things day to day. But how is it that a country so energy-starved can be so blind to simple things like heating (insulation is generally poor in Japanese construction) and lighting?” he asks.
He says a visit to a shop to buy a bulb for his Tokyo apartment drove home to him how far short Japan, one of the most technologically advanced countries, is falling on energy efficiency.
“I couldn’t understand why in the world they didn’t have compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) bulbs there,” Mathai says. “Instead, they had something made a hundred years ago (incandescent bulbs).”
He says the gradual replacement of traditional bulbs by CFLs and LEDs, which can provide the same level of lighting for a fifth or less of energy input, has been among the greatest achievements in the years following the landmark Rio Summit of 1992, but despite Japan’s moment of truth last summer, 49 percent of its bulbs are still incandescent.
But the new attitudes toward energy use to deal with the global environmental crisis will require more than unscrewing a few old bulbs, Mathai warns. It will mean a completely new approach to energy use and a new way of thinking about “efficiency” that could change the way we lead our lives and organize our societies.
For instance, over half of humanity now lives in an urban environment, but Mathai says continued, unmoderated urbanization may be inefficient in ecological terms.
“Projections end up making the future, but there is no need to argue that urbanization is inevitable,” he says.
He points out that all urbanized OECD countries, including Japan, are “eco-debtors,” pulling in huge amounts of mined and grown resources to survive. Rural areas, on the other hand, receive steady flows of dispersed energy--sunlight, wind, geothermal energy, biomass--and efficient, dispersed use of such energy could be one part of finding a sustainable way forward.
“When we mine into stock, the question is how fast you can mine. Flow, on the other hand, (continues) forever. It comes whether you like it or not, but you can’t ask it to come faster. You have to learn to harvest it and harvest it efficiently,” he says.
On the other side of the coin, some apparently efficient modern technologies may not turn out to have the benefits attributed to them.
Nuclear power plants, for instance, may look appealing to countries trying to catch up with Western living standards, but they are not what those countries necessarily need, he says. Likewise, making more efficient cars will not help the environment if those cars just make people drive more--an effect that is particularly obvious in the developing world.
Mathai says much has been achieved since the 1992 summit, but there is still a very large amount of ground to cover.
“A lot of wealth has been produced, but inequality and even severe destitution remain an issue,” he says. “There have been lots of achievements but now we’re stuck in this place. We have to ask, ‘Which way do we go forward? Do we insist that we are to stick to what we’ve been following, or rethink and try to do something different?”
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