Land of Rising Sun can shed new light on climate fight

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IT IS the humid, rainy season in Tokyo and tens of thousands of identical black-suited salarymen are scurrying to work in this never-sleep, surreal high-rise metropolis.

But for many worker ants there is a difference this June. For hierarchical, buttoned-up corporate Japan is a little, well, unbuttoned. It is the time of "Cool Biz" where, for the spring months, government departments and some companies have switched off the air-conditioning to save energy and allowed workers to loosen the collar and abandon the tie. It's a small sign of how seriously this country takes the issue of global warming, even if it makes for uncomfortable conditions in the teeming office towers of the capital.

Japan is an island nation of impressive technical innovation and entrepreneurship; that much is not in doubt. Centuries of isolation and the fears that come with reliance on sometimes hostile nations to supply basic items for living (the biggest importer to Japan with more than 20 per cent of the market is China) have driven a need for self sufficiency that is so tangible you can almost touch it.

That drive is now increasingly at the service of alternative energy systems and climate stability.

When you land at Tokyo's impressive Narita airport your Japan Airlines stewardess will tell you how the company is working towards a greener future, newspapers are full of advances in zero-emissions coal-fired power generation and millions of workers carry around little pledge cards which tell them how many grammes of emissions they can save by stepping out of the shower a minute early. There's no sign of global warming scepticism here.

Yasuo Fukuda, the beleaguered prime minister currently beset by no-confidence motions and criticism of his lacklustre leadership style, is fond of talking green. Earlier this month, he promised Japan would cut its emission by up to 80 per cent by 2050, although as we shall discover there were good reasons why there was so little detail.

More than 600 miles to the north, workers are still laying the intricate tiles on the driveway of the magnificent Windsor Hotel overlooking the breathtakingly beautiful Lake Toya on Japan's northern island, Hokkaido. Trees are being planted to complement the fresco even though it is extremely doubtful the eight statesmen who will arrive here on 7 July, bringing their own domestic troubles with them, will notice this typical Japanese attention to detail.

For the Windsor, with its Michelin three-star restaurant, is hosting the three-day G8 summit in less than two weeks and Japan is spending time, money and effort to put itself at the forefront of world opinion on the issues that will be discussed in this exquisite venue.

Africa, of course, is on the agenda, as are weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, climate change and, looming over all these, the current state of the world economy. Japan may have been reasonably protected from the sub-prime meltdown but oil and food price surges are hitting hard.

The Hokkaido government is not sparing the hyperbole in its efforts to earn some reflected glory from the G8. Its brochure plays heavily on the unspoilt environment of this skiers' paradise.

Harumi Takahashi, governor of Hokkaido, says: "We believe that Hokkaido, which is blessed with a rich natural environment, is an ideal venue to encourage fruitful discussions and exchanges for the sound future of the Earth."

Others are not so sure about the fruitful bit. Yuzuru Endo, political correspondent of daily newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, which has a circulation of ten million readers a day, thinks the Japanese have other concerns beyond the talkfest up in Lake Toya.

"Our readers are more interested in social security, pensions, medical care and employment," he says. "They are not sure what G8 will actually deliver."

HIROSHI Suzuki picks an unlikely setting to tell a story of extreme hardship which haunts those who rule Japan. A million shimmering lights from the city are spread out below us like a scene from Blade Runner as we pick through the soup, sushi, and gorgeous fish of a 40th floor upmarket restaurant back in Tokyo.

"I remember being 12 and being sent to the queues outside the shops," says the senior press secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," I was lucky because I was small I could duck under the electric doors as they wound up and be the first to get to the toilet rolls, there were so few of them."

He's talking about the two "oil shocks" Japan suffered in 1974 and 1979. The country's dependence on an unstable world as oil prices rose and supplies became scarce plunged it into crisis. It has been obsessed ever since, way before the United States woke up to smell the biofuel, with placing technological innovation at the service of self sufficiency. Japan leads the world in research and development in the energy sector, spending roughly 2 billion in 2005 compared to 1.5 billion in the US and a paltry 60 million in the UK.

And here's the trick. Japan believes this research can help the world's economies continue to grow while still cutting emissions. The European green movement message that we need to completely rethink our lifestyles finds no resonance in the land of the wafer-thin computer and the PlayStation. As we shall see, that is at the very least open to question.

Japan is frenziedly ploughing on with development of solar power, geothermal energy research, garden roofs, eco-use navigation systems, 200-year durable housing projects, storage and, of course, the hydrogen car.

And here is an opportunity. In January, Mr Fukuda announced the Cool Earth Partnership, 5 billion of aid to developing countries to help cut their emissions through energy efficiency technologies. This is not insignificant given that the countries who signed up to the Kyoto Protocol in 2005 produce only 28 per cent of the world's emissions while the US with 21 per cent and China with 19 per cent have made no such policy initiative.

Ask enough questions on the Cool Earth Partnership though and you soon discover most of it is tied to the benefiting countries using Japanese companies for said technology.

EVERY year, the "yellow sand" arrives to settle on the immaculate Hondas, Nissans and Mazdas in Japanese driveways. Ten years ago this was a minor irritant, the sands of the Gobi desert washed away with a cloth. Now the Gobi comes with something else – Chinese pollution.

The relationship between the two countries is backfilled by centuries of distrust and, more bitterly, by the stain of Japanese imperialist aggression towards China, culminating in early 20th century atrocities such as the Nanking massacre. Even today, Japanese society finds it hard to face the sins of the past, the failure to admit its brutal expansionist policies across much of the Asia-Pacific region a modern running sore. Today, disputes over maritime borders and the race for economic supremacy are what occupy politicians on both sides.

Last week's historic signing of a joint gas field development project in the East China Sea cannot mask the tensions completely. Japanese exports to China are worth around 56 billion a year while the figure the other way is about 62 billion. This makes some Japanese politicians nervous.

Small wonder then that, at the G8 on 7 July, you will start to hear the sound of repositioning on climate change, an emphasis on developing countries playing their part. At the heart of this are concerns that while some G8 countries tie themselves in knots on climate change, others are experiencing unfettered economic expansion. Prepare, in other words, for some backsliding.

KYOTO, famous as the cultural heart of Japan and, unlike Tokyo spared American bombing in the Second World War, is a name never far from the lips of Japanese officials. Because here's the rub. As well as being a beautiful, 1,200-year-old city, its name might also stand for the collective failure of governments to agree action and stick to it.

If anyone was going to be able to meet its Kyoto Protocol targets, it should have been Japan. It produces the lowest emissions per GDP in the world (0.24 per cent compared to 0.43 per cent in the EU, 0.53 per cent in the US and a whacking 4.41 per cent in Russia) and claims to have reduced energy consumption by more than 35 per cent in 30 years.

But it signed up to reduce emissions by 6 per cent a year to 2012. Currently it is increasing those emissions by 8 per cent a year. In other words, it hasn't a hope in hell of making its targets and, if it hasn't, neither has anyone else.

Instead, the Japanese public now hears politicians talk of carbon trading schemes to buy other country's emission credits and "sectoral" targets for different parts of the economy which, to many, sound like disguising overall figures.

In Japan, as elsewhere, the years of prosperity have led to bigger cars, bigger buildings, bigger TVs and 24-hour business. While awareness of the need to be energy efficient is high, demand for energy is growing. Much-fabled Japanese technological innovation is going to have to experience a second renaissance if the country is to make good its promises. The prospect of Japan's failure to do so should worry us all.

At the souvenir shops around Lake Toya, tourists can buy G8 trinkets including sweets, pens and T-shirts with cartoon images of the eight leaders bathing in one of Japan's famous Hot Springs.

Via a translator, one of the storekeepers smiles and points towards the Windsor Hotel high up on the hill.

"Lots of hot air coming from there next month, lucky it's not the skiing season," he says.

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