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Friday, May 13, 2005

ENVIRONMENT SYMPOSIUM

Good technology, market acceptance crucial in fight against global warming


Staff writer

State-of the art technologies that can slash greenhouse gas emissions are laudable, but efforts to introduce environment-friendly products and services will come to nothing without wide support from the market, or consumers, said participants in a recent business symposium held in Tokyo.

News photo
Officials of companies and industry organizations discuss efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during a symposium held at Keidanren in Tokyo on April 26.

Industrial sectors should make sure that introduction of such technologies will not result in more costly and less convenient products, the panelists said.

The Environmental Technology Symposium, jointly organized on April 26 by the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) and Keizai Koho Center, gathered representatives from various industrial sectors who discussed their ongoing efforts in such areas.

Masumoto Teruaki, chairman of the Nippon Keidanren Committee on Environment and Safety's Subcommittee on Global Environment and a member of the government's Central Environment Council, said there are two major steps that corporations can take to cut emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

News photo
Teruaki Masumoto

One is to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide produced in the manufacturing process, he said. And the other is to trigger changes in social practices and behavior into more environment-friendly modes through the products and services companies offer.

Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which took effect in February, Japan is obliged to reduce between 2008 and 2012 its greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent from the 1990 level.

However, a recent government estimate shows that Japan's emissions in 2010 would be 6 percent higher than the 1990 level unless further steps are taken to lower them.

News photo
Kazumoto Yamamoto

"The path will not be easy, because that means Japan will have to implement a 12 percent cut" in coming years to fulfill its commitments in the Kyoto pact, said Kazumoto Yamamoto, co-chairman of Keidanren's Environment and Safety Committee.

In his opening remarks, Yamamoto emphasized that industrial sectors are doing their job. He said companies that have taken part in a Keidanren-organized voluntary program have managed to trim their carbon dioxide emissions by 0.6 percent from the 1990 level as of fiscal 2003.

On the other hand, carbon dioxide emissions in the transport sector, as well as offices and households have increased by up to 30 percent, he noted.

More energy-efficient

This is where industrial companies can make further contributions -- by creating more energy-efficient products and services, as well as streamlining their own transportation and distribution systems, Yamamoto said.

News photo
Businessmen view an exhibition of paneles explaining the latest environment-friendly technologies developed by Japanese industries.

Such efforts, he added, need to be aided by changes in public awareness of the environmental challenges facing Japan and the rest of the world.

What is important is to create a positive cycle wherein people's rising awareness of environmental problems leads to greater demand for more energy-efficient products, and companies then respond to such needs with technological innovations, Yamamoto told the audience.

He reiterated Keidanren's opposition to the introduction of a carbon tax, which is being considered by the Environment Ministry as a potential measure to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

A new tax or a series of regulatory steps could result in a heavier burden on corporate sectors that could possibly damage their competitiveness and vigor that in turn support their voluntary efforts against global warming, he argued.

During a panel discussion by officials of companies and organizations who represent various industrial sectors, Yoshihiro Kageyama, a manager at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Environment Department, introduced a new system -- based on "heat pump" technology -- where heat collected from the atmosphere is used to heat water.

This energy-efficient power system, which is already on the market, can be installed in homes as well as offices, and can be used to run air conditioners and refrigerators as well, he said.

One problem, he noted, is the high initial cost.

A hot water supply system for the home based on this technology is estimated to cost about 700,000 yen -- roughly double a conventional system using gas as the power source.

While monthly bills on the system will be lower, it would take five to 10 years for the investment to pay off, he said.

This problem will hopefully be resolved once the cost of the increasingly popular system comes down as it becomes more widespread in the future, Kageyama said.

Takashi Anamizu of Tokyo Gas Co.'s Home Service Planning Department said such new services offered by electric power companies have motivated the gas companies, which used to enjoy an effective monopoly of hot water supply systems, to similarly pursue greater energy-efficiency for their products.

Customer resistance

Anamizu also said customers will not accept products and services that in effect are more expensive or less convenient to use due to energy-efficient or environment-friendly features.

"For anti-global warming efforts in everyday life to become sustainable, the new services must result in lower costs and greater comfort," he noted.

Nobuo Sonoda, director of the environment issues headquarters of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., said his company has developed technology that can run a refrigerator at one-fifth of the electricity consumed by an equivalent machine 10 years ago. Similarly, the company has designed a new air conditioner that can run on 40 percent of the power needed for a same-grade model a decade ago, he added.

"Our challenge is how to encourage our customers to use those products in their homes" " Sonoda said. "And this is something that our company or industry cannot do on its own. We must work together with public and administrative authorities" to promote products featuring those technologies, he said.

Like electronics, the auto industry is one sector seen as a source of a major portion of carbon dioxide emissions when its products are used by the consumers -- rather than when the goods are being manufactured at factories, according to Masayuki Sasanouchi, head of the environment planning department of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association.

About 80 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions involving automobiles are produced when the vehicles are on the road, Sasanouchi said.

Therefore, the central theme of the auto industry's push against global warming is to make the vehicles more fuel efficient -- through improved engines, the introduction of gasoline-electricity hybrid cars as well as those running on fuel cells, he said.

However, automakers cannot simply "impose" vehicles featuring energy-saving technologies on the consumers, he said. "They need to be chosen by the market, which will also take into account other factors such as safety and comfort."

Fuel cells

Fuel cells are being touted as an ultimate source of clean energy because they emit only water when they produce energy as hydrogen and oxygen are mixed. But while they show a lot of promise, there are still a number of technological challenges -- such as limited mileage and the question of how to dispose of the water at subfreezing temperatures -- before they can be widely used as a source of automobile power, Sasanouchi said.

Although fuel cells do not emit carbon dioxide when they power vehicles, they ironically produce more carbon dioxide than gasoline during the manufacturing process, he said.

The energy efficiency of automobiles also relies heavily on input from other industries.

Kenichiro Saito, head of the fuel technology office of Nippon Oil Corp.'s product development department, said introduction of sulfur-free gasoline is essential for auto-makers intent on providing more energy-efficient vehicles because the sulfur in auto fuel is harmful to exhaust-gas cleaning systems.

Toru Ono, head of the energy technology group of Nippon Steel Corp.'s technology headquarters, said increased use of lightweight but high-tensile steel plates -- which today account for roughly half of the steel used in vehicles' bodies -- will reduce vehicle weight and make them more fuel efficient.

Technological improvements that have boosted the shock- and heat-resistance of plastics have resulted in increased ratio of plastic content used in vehicles' bodies from about 3 percent in the early 1970s to 8.2 percent as of 2001, thereby reducing vehicle weight, according to Kazuo Imada, deputy secretary general of the Japan Responsible Care Council -- a unit of the Japan Chemical Industry Association.

During the symposium, Takamiki Tamashige, chief of the research and development for Japan Cement Association's department on conversion of flammable waste into fuel, and Hiraku Nihei, managing director of the Japan Paper Association, also explained their industries' efforts and achievements in reducing energy consumption and promoting materials' recycling in the manufacturing processes.



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