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Sunday, Aug. 25, 2002

MEDIA MIX

Buying into the idea of saving the planet


It may not be intentional, but the new batch of ads by the Tokyo Electric Power Co. could be seen as taking advantage of the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, which opens in Johannesburg on Monday. In each TV spot, following energy-saving advice related to the use of air conditioners, we see Tepco's cartoon girl mascot, Denko, receive a kiss from the Earth itself.

The planet, apparently, loves power companies that are willing to suffer decreases in revenues for the sake of the environment.

This idea certainly pertains to the Johannesburg summit, where delegates will discuss ways in which economic development can proceed in step with environmental conservation.

Still, relying on a private electric power company to take on the job of educating the public about conservation is not unlike asking a cigarette manufacturer to warn people about the dangers of smoking. So while Japan Tobacco advises people not to smoke "too much," Tepco urges us to increase the temperature setting on our air conditioners by a mere 1 degree.

Nevertheless, Tepco's advice is in line with the Environment Ministry's guidelines for reducing greenhouse gases. According to the Kyoto Convention, which Japan signed for no other reason than that they hosted the thing and would look pretty silly if they didn't OK it, Japan has pledged to cut its output of carbon dioxide by 6 percent from 1990 levels. The Environment Ministry figures that about a third of this 6 percent cut should be shouldered by homes and nonmanufacturing workplaces.

The numbers may sound small (Europe's targets are in double figures) but they still caused a lot of grief in the ministry, which, according to the Asahi Shimbun, was afraid that any sort of cutback in energy consumption might stall economic recovery. But pressured by time and the need to justify their promotion from a mere agency to a ministry, the relevant bureaucrats finally released the guidelines May 1.

In addition to setting air conditioners a degree higher, the ministry also asks citizens to reduce shower time by a minute a day, cut TV-watching time by an hour a day, drive 8 km less a week, and stop buying pre-wrapped produce.

And while some delivery companies have told their drivers not to park with their engines idling at all, the ministry doesn't seem to think you have to be that strict. They say cut your engine idling time by 5 minutes a day, a directive that will mean nothing to the salesmen who park outside my place at noon and take 45-minute naps with the motor running and the air conditioner on full blast.

The government claims that if all households follow these guidelines, then each of them can save 10 percent in energy costs and as a whole reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 13 percent a year, which is more than twice the target. Put another way, if only 30 percent of the households in Japan follow these guidelines, then the 6 percent target can be reached.

The important word here is "can," because the guidelines are purely voluntary. What's more, the lingering recession causes the media to send out conflicting signals. Though Tepco has nobly taken it upon itself to convey the ministry's guidelines with respect to air-conditioner usage, it would never tell you to turn the thing off. Air-conditioner sales, after all, are one of the two yardsticks -- the other one being beer -- for measuring summer economic activity. When sales go up, everyone seems happy.

The ministry also recommends the use of counter-top dishwashers, saying that they actually save energy. Though the government can presumably defend this claim, the idea of buying such a machine for the express purpose of saving resources flies in the face of common sense. But the government wants the public to believe that consumer-spurred economic growth and conservation can go hand-in-hand.

This lack of coherence in conservation policy is exacerbated by a news media that fails to make meaningful connections between global warming and everyday consumption. The Asahi Shimbun and NHK have presented some excellent reports recently on, respectively, the burden that ecological damage places on poorer communities, and the dangers of rising ocean levels around South Sea island countries. But to find out the reasons for this degradation, you have to look elsewhere.

Practically speaking, of course, telling people that driving those extra 8 km contributes to drought in Ethiopia is probably not going to make them more environmentally responsible, which is why European countries enact legislation to mandate conservation. When it comes to consumption, the Japanese government, like the United States', prefers a hands-off approach. It's up to local governments to take the initiative. Suginami Ward in Tokyo wants to place a tax on shopping bags, for instance.

The authorities are comfortable with conservation if it can be made into commodities, like those counter-top dishwashers. Or hybrid cars. In the U.S., conservationists hail Japanese car makers for proceeding with the development of alternative-fuel vehicles while their U.S. counterparts, who are seen as slaves to petroleum interests, drag their feet. Those U.S. conservationists have obviously never sat in a 70-km traffic jam during the O-bon holiday rush. If they had, they'd know the solution in Japan is not alternative cars, but fewer cars.



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