Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Is Japan the Future? (part 6)

8. The Great Wave

“Japanese history has entered a new phase…”
Writer Kenzaburo Oe

The eyes of the world turned to Japan on March 10-11 as the nation was devastated by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Tens of thousands were dead and missing in the aftermath, and entire towns were flooded and washed away. A 35 foot wave breached the protective sea wall at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing a nuclear emergency that is still ongoing. Because the Japanese have no fossil fuel energy resources of any consequence, they turned to nuclear power as a way keep powering their industrial economy. After the oil shocks of the 1970's, Japan realized the ephemeral nature of Middle Eastern oil supplies, and built 55 nuclear reactors, generating 30 percent of Japan's electrical power.

The disaster in Japan revealed to the world how fragile the global economic system really is, and it's disturbing lack of resilience. Vehicle supply chains all around the world went into a state of chaos. It takes around 3,000 parts to make a car, and if even one of them is unavailable it can stop a car from getting built. Toyota announced it was temporarily shutting down its North American operations due to a lack of part availability. Honda slashed output by half at its North American plants, while Nissan shut all its U.S. and Mexican plants for a week in April. Even Ford Motor Company halted production in its Kentucky plant in the wake of the disaster. Japanese companies specialized in making the highly specialized computer chips that control everything from steering to brakes. Microchip manufacturing is a highly complex process requiring hundreds of discrete steps. That is why another supplier cannot simply step in, or other suppliers cannot simply fill the void. Everything is carefully linked together in a globalized supply chain dependant on cheap energy and political stability. The countries of the world are now like a series of mountain climbers all roped together, if enough lose their grip, they will drag all the others down with them.

Much of the energy infrastructure of northeastern Japan was destroyed in the earthquake and tsunami, including harbors, airports and refineries. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) lost one quarter of its supply capacity because of the disaster, due to the loss of its two Fukushima plants as well as eight conventional power stations. From March 14 onwards, rolling blackouts were extended across Japan's Kanto region. While some of the conventional plants are now back online, it is estimated that such power cuts could continue for years due to the loss of the nuclear facilities.. Shortfalls will become more acute over the summer months as demand for air conditioning peaks. Six of Japan's 28 oil refineries were affected causing fuel rationing beginning on March 12, with the subsequent release of oil stockpiles.

Japan is the world’s third leading consumer of oil, and is completely dependent on outside resources to fuel its export-led economy. Nuclear energy was once seen as the great white hope of a world facing an uncertain energy future. In 2010 Japan’s Basic Energy Plan called for the construction of nine new nuclear plants and a nuclear export industry. Now, the limitations of such a strategy are clear. A twenty-kilometer radius around the nuclear plant is uninhabitable, and may never by habitable again. 7,872 farms were lost, along with 18,754 fishing vessels. Agricultural products from the region are contaminated, and the seawater off the coast of Fukushima contains 7.5 million times the legal limit of radioactive iodine. Seafood, which has been such an important part of Japanese culture, is under a profound threat. Northern Japan has already undertaken heroic efforts to conserve electricity – 15,000 megawatts have been taken offline by the disaster – greater than the total peak summer demand for all of New York City. The ultimate costs of Fukushima are going to more than cancel out any benefits the power plant generated – a classic case of uneconomic growth. Matt Roney, a researcher for the Earth Policy Institute writes:

The aftermath of the two natural disasters has brought into sharp focus the vulnerability of a nation currently reliant on imports to meet the vast majority of its energy needs. Japan imports all the uranium used to fuel its nuclear reactors, which account for 11 percent of its energy consumption. And Japan is the world’s top importer of both coal and natural gas, which make up 21 percent and 17 percent of its energy use. It is also the third-ranking oil importer. Consumed largely in the transportation sector, oil accounts for 46 percent of Japan’s energy use. The remainder comes from renewable sources, mostly hydropower. Altogether, Japan spends some $160 billion a year importing all of its coal and uranium and virtually all of its oil and natural gas.

Now, wishes for a massive "growth" recovery now seem like cruel mockery - survival is now the paramount issue as the nation waits to see the full extent of the damage at Fukushima Daiichi. The Japanese have now become acutely aware of the high price of growth and industrialization. How will this affect the nation's consciousness? While the Japanese are a resilient people and will rebuild as the did after the Second World War, the gloom-and-doom attitude described in the Times article will only intensify. Will the Japanese listen to the siren song of economic growth, or will they realize they must preserve what they already have? How will a nation that was created during the age of cheap oil 40 years ago rebuild now that oil is over one hundred dollars a barrel? Japans’ twentieth century population boom was entirely fuelled by imported energy. Is population reduction, such as what is already occurring, not what should be happening? Once again, is this the shape of things to come? As Brendan Barrett writes in the Guardian:

These food and bottled water shortages, power cuts, fuel-rationing and breakdowns in just-in-time manufacturing have been anticipated by those who take peak oil seriously. It is almost as if eastern Japan is experiencing a peak oil rehearsal, although other regions of Japan are virtually unaffected. If proponents of peak oil are correct, then the rest of the world may experience something similar within the next 5 to 10 years, and hence it is important that we learn valuable lessons from Japan’s response to the current circumstances.

Can petroleum based civilization continue? If it can’t, isn’t now a good time to rethink our basic assumptions about growth, demographics, economics, social welfare, and prosperity? Who better than Japan to lead the way? Brendan Barrett again:

If Japan is to build back better, then it should perhaps do so by building more resilient, more locally oriented communities in the areas affected by the quake and tsunami, and beyond. In fact, this is a chance to reconsider completely the development path for Japan towards one that is less vulnerable, less reliant upon fossil fuels, and ideally a low carbon society.

It is obvious that Japan can not return to the preindustrial Edo period of two hundred years ago – the population is way too large and it’s not likely that a population used to the fruits of high technology will want to return to living in a preindustrial age. Certainly no one would advocate the rigid feudal social structure, autocracy, or lack of human rights that were also features of this period in modern times. Nor will Japan have to close itself off from the outside world, even if it had the ability to do so. As John Michael Greer points out, “The climax community that emerges after a period of prolonged ecological disruption and the arrival of new biotic assemblages rarely has much in common with the climax community that prevailed before the disruptions began. In the same way, and for most of the same reasons, claims that the deindustrial world will necessarily end up as an exact equivalent of some past society – be that medieval feudalism, tribal hunter-gatherer cultures, or anything else – need to be taken with more than the usual grain of salt.” We do not need to repeat the past - we merely need to learn the appropriate lessons from it. We can then add to it the progess we've made along the way, keeping what is beneficial and discarding what is not.

Rather, what if Japan instead pioneered the way to a more sustainable future while enjoying the fruits of industrial development? What if Japan took from the outside world only what it could not produce internally?. What if Japan advocated local economies and self-sufficiency? What if it pushed energy-efficiency and created a recycling culture? What if it preserved its natural resources and became a low-carbon society? Japan is already a leader in fields like robotics and solar energy. In 2006, Japan produced 39 percent of the solar panels in the world, while the government provided generous subsidies for research and installation. Three Japanese firms – Fuji, Toshiba and Mitsubishi – produce two-thirds of the world’s geothermal turbines, although geothermal currently provides lass than 1 percent of Japan’s energy. The cost of the Fusushima disaster cleanup, currently estimated 152 billion dollars, could have purchased enough geothermal energy to generate 33 gigawatts of electricity - 7 times as much as the nuclear plant's maximum output. If that sum were invested in solar energy, it could produce 41.6 billion killowatt hours, enough solar panels for 7,600,000 homes - 15 percent of the total. Japan’s Kamisu offshore windf farm, only 150 miles from the earthquake epicenter continued to produce power with no incident, and was even asked to step up production in the wake of the disaster. If any of these systems were to fail, they would not produce the massive devestation and loss of life seen during the ongoing nuclear catastrophe. According to Matt Roney:

Located along the tectonically active Pacific Ring of Fire, with nearly 200 volcanoes and some 28,000 hot springs, Japan is one of the world’s most geothermally rich countries. Using conventional technologies, geothermal energy could provide over 80,000 megawatts of electricity-generating capacity -- enough to meet half of the country’s electricity needs. But with the modern enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) technology now available, Japan’s geothermal potential could be far greater. To give a sense of the possibilities, a U.S. Geological Survey study of geothermal resources in the United States found that EGS increased estimated U.S. geothermal power potential 13-fold.

Similarly, Japan’s enormous wind energy potential has hardly been tapped. At the end of 2010 Japan had installed 2,300 megawatts of wind capacity, enough to power 700,000 Japanese homes. The official goals for 2020 and 2030 are 10,000 and 20,000 megawatts, respectively, with the latter capacity equal to 6 percent of Japan’s current electricity consumption. But a 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that Japan’s land-based wind resources could provide half of its electricity. If harnessable offshore wind resources are included, the wind energy potential far exceeds current electricity needs.

Japan’s most ambitious renewable energy goals are those for solar photovoltaics (PV), mostly in rooftop panels. Among the world leaders in installed PV capacity, Japan connected an estimated 900 megawatts to the grid in 2010, bringing its total capacity to more than 3,500 megawatts. By 2020, Japan aims to increase this eightfold, to 28,000 megawatts, with a goal of 53,000 megawatts by 2030. This would be sufficient to power 18 million Japanese homes.

In 2007, experts at the National Institute of Environmental Science published a report in which it argued that Japan can achieve a Low Carbon Society by reducing energy demand by 40-45%. According to the report:

Based on sophisticated modeling, the researchers envisage that energy demand reductions would be associated with the shrinking population, accompanied by measures to more rationally use energy, greater energy conservation and improvements in energy efficiencies.

Big differences are predicted by sector. For instance, in the industrial sector, restructuring and the introduction of energy saving technologies are expected to reduce energy demand by 20-40%. In the passenger transportation sector, new measures to promote better land use and improvements in energy efficiency are expected to cut energy demand by 80%.

In the freight transportation sector demand is expected to fall by 60 to 70% thanks to more effective logistics management and improvements in the energy efficiency of vehicles. Similar benefits, in the region of 50% reductions, are anticipated in the household sector due to re-building, better insulation and energy saving appliances.

Writing in the Guardian, author and environmental campaigner Bill McKibben gives a picture of what such efforts might entail:

The other possibility is to try to build down a little: to focus on resilience, on safety. And to do that — here’s the controversial part — instead of focusing on growth. We might decide that the human enterprise (at least in the west) has got big enough, that our appetites need not to grow, but to shrink a little, in order to provide us more margin. What would that mean? Buses and bikes and trains, not SUVs. Local food, with more people on the farm so that muscles replace some of the oil. Having learned that banks are “too big to fail”, we might guess that our food and energy systems fall into that same category.

Imagine, for instance, a nation that got most of its power from rooftop solar panels knitted together in a vast distributed grid. It would take investment to get there – we’d have to divert money from other tasks, slowing some kinds of growth, because solar power is currently more expensive than coal power. We might not have constant access to unlimited power at every second of every day. In the end, though, you’d have not only less carbon in the atmosphere, but also a country far less failure-prone.

And a post on Treehugger also asks the question:

But what, exactly, would a no growth, or steady state economy look like? It's hard to say, because the modern world has never seen one. But among the ideas discussed are shifting the burden of taxation from employment, and toward resource extraction, pollution and waste; encouraging job sharing, part-time employment and flexible hours; promoting cultural pursuits and other non-material consumption; and finding alternative methods of measuring well-being than mere GDP.

Despite the beliefs of modern economists, past economists like Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and even John Maynard Keynes thought that eventually we would reach eventually reach a plateau of no-growth. According to John Michael Greer, “A truly advanced civilization, here or elsewhere, might well have more in common with a climax community: it might use very modest amounts of energy and resources with high efficiency, maximize sustainability, and build for the long term.” We can either fight this inevitability, liquidating our society in a mad attempt to start growth at all costs, or grow into maturity, as a tree or an ecosystem eventually does. The choice is ours.

Please read part 1 of this article

Please read part 2 of this article

Please read part 3 of this article

Please read part 4 of this article

Please read part 5 of this article

Continue to part 7

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