Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Higher Gas Price Saving Lives

With gasoline prices in Japan topping 180 per liter (about $6.31 per gallon), it is normal to focus on the negative economic impact and personal inconvenience. But there is a positive side to this.

Fossil fuels are something mankind need to get away from, not only because they are finite resources, but because of the many ways their use damages the environment, from plastics in the ocean to global climate change, they are unhealthy.

Higher prices means lower demand. As the Kurashi poll on gasoline prices showed, people faced with higher prices react by using less.

Another interesting benefit is that traffic deaths and injuries are way down - out of proportion to the drop in traffic. Lets look at some numbers:

According to East Nippon Expressway Co., which covers an area that includes Hokkaido, Tohoku and Kanto, a daily average of 2.34 million vehicles used its expressways in June, down 4.9 percent from a year earlier. (The Asahi Shimbun)

The daily average for West Nippon Expressway Co., which mostly covers the Kinki, Chugoku, Shikoku and Kyushu regions, was 2.19 million vehicles, down 4.1 percent.

Central Nippon Expressway Co., which mostly covers the Tokai and Hokuriku regions, reported a 2.4-percent year-on-year decrease to 1.605 million vehicles.

So expressway traffic is down from 2.4 to 4.9 percent this year. For one thing, this means less pollution, not only because of fewer kilometer driven, but because people are shifting to more efficient rental cars and vans at airports. Car sales have been declining for several years in Japan and the only segment of the market that is growing is for mini cars with 660 cc or smaller engines. So the pollution drop is more than the traffic decline might lead one to believe.

On the safety side, according to an article in The Japan Times,

"The death toll from road accidents during the first half of the year dropped 13.5% from a year before to 2,295, the lowest since statistics were first recorded in 1954, the National Police Agency said Thursday. The number of traffic accidents and injured persons in the first half of this year also declined, by 8.1% to 371,943 and by 8.5% to 458,879, respectively, the NPA said."

That's 42,628 fewer people injured in the first half of the year, and 358 people who are alive today that would have been killed in car crashes during that period.

Next time, take the train.

The transition to a post carbon world won't be easy, but we'll have a cleaner environment and fewer accident victims.

Walk, ride a bicycle, use public transportation.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Totally Looks Like...

Thanks Mari!

Totally Looks Like...

Poll Results: How Will High Gasoline Prices Affect You?

Thanks everyone who participated in the Kurashi poll about high gasoline prices since May.

55 votes!

I'm really pleased.

It is perhaps not surprising that 55% of you are saying that you will drive less.

Three votes for selling your car? Congratulations, good thinking.

There is a lot to discuss and explain, and a lot I also don't understand about energy issues. I firmly believe that we are now at a Peak Oil moment when gasoline will never be cheap again. I also think the economy and our society will change rapidly - including food and other related issues. We already heard from 200,000 fishermen around Japan that they are facing tough times. This is also true for anyone farming these days, who uses machines and chemical fertilizers (Maybe I should have had another choice for you, asking "Car is irrelevant, gasoline prices affect me").

Ahem. Here are a few of the comments, precious. Listen to contamination:

For me its a perfect excuse to encourage my lazy wife to walk more. Somehow (and I can't EVER understand why) she will be happy to go out for a walk for an hour or two when the point is to walk.

But if it's to walk somewhere and walk back, she will prefer to drive.

So I can now say, honey we aren't rich - lets walk. And I'm getting more success.

And Tornadoes28 really hit the nail on the head:

I live in LA. Since last year I have been taking a bus and then subway to downtown. Where I used to fill up the gas tank about once a week, now I go several weeks between fill ups. So the gas prices don't affect me to badly.

Which prompted Isis to offer some (divine?) praise:

I hope a lot more people will do as Tornadoes is doing. It will help to reduce car traffic so that my bicycling will be safer and more pleasant with less air pollution as well. ;^)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

JEAN: Beach Cleanup Here In Japan

Ever wanted to join a NGO or thought about doing something for the environment? Local volunteers are making a huge effort to get people to join beach cleanup campaigns along Japan’s long coastline. Japan Environmental Action Network (JEAN) was founded by three Japanese women who wanted to do something about the trash they found on their trips to the ocean, and held its first cleanup event in September 1990.

JEAN’s beach cleanup campaign is making waves not only in Japan. 40,000 volunteers helped to pick up trash here last year, carefully writing down each item as part of the international Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup campaign.

JEAN has a nice motto: “Think Globally, Clean Locally”.

More details over at Treehugger.

(Image from Okinawa: Takakuku)

(Graph from Ocean Conservancy 2006 Report pdf)

Green Mondays

I wanted to share GreenMondays with you, a new monthly event in Tokyo for those interested in any type of Environmental and Sustainability issues. GreenMondays is intended as a forum for people from corporations, NGOs and government, as well as the entrepreneurs who are inventing the new technologies.

DO have a look at the website and maybe you will want to join their events!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

NHK: Japan Names Six Eco Model Cities

Japan's government has named six "Eco Model Cities" as environmentally friendly model cities and will provide them with financial support. The government chose Yokohama, Kitakyushu, Toyama, Obihiro, Minamata and Shimokawa out of 82 applications for the designation. Applicants presented their ideas to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, the city of Obihiro, in a famous agricultural region called Tokachi in Hokkaido, plans to produce alternative fuel from compost and unused parts of bean plants, and to use waste cooking oil for automobile fuel. Obihiro has set an ambitious target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the city by 50 percent by 2050. Not a day too late.

Yokohama? Why did they make the cut? They plan to offer reduced real estate tax for houses that are more durable and produce less waste materials, so as to promote the building of such houses.

Over at, we think all 82 applications should have gotten the green light.

(Photo from Taku Iida's website)

"Pay attention to the risks from soaring energy prices"

(AFP) - Bank of Japan Governor Masaaki Shirakawa delivers a speech in Tokyo on July 18. Japan's central bank chief warned Friday to pay attention to the risks from soaring energy prices, saying that policymakers underestimated the impact of the oil shocks in the 1970s.

I found the above (brief) quote on News On Japan. There are no further links, no way to find out what else Mr. Shirakawa said. Isn't it strange that the World's second largest economy is not better prepared to broadcast its views on the internet, in languages that people in the rest of the world may understand? Or do Japanese people also not care what the Bank of Japan Governor says?

I think he has got it right, so let us try to find out what else he thinks.

Update: The Bank of Japan has an English website, where updates are not done in a normal, timley fashion, but rather randomly. How cute.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Trainspotting: Japanese Kids Learn To Love Trains

I love trains, always did. Started riding on my own when I was about 9 or 10 (ask my mother). And I never looked back (oh, I had a drivers licence for about a year back when I was 21, but that quickly expired when I moved to Japan). I'm a fan.

Trainspotting here in Japan - you get to see a lot of great engineering displayed on the tracks. Kids love it, and there are otaku who venture out to take photos of the most rare engines.

Here in Tokyo, a new subway line just opened in June, the Fukutoshin line. It is the 13th line, and with that, Japan's capital has over 300 km of subway lines (in addition to regular JR rail tracks, including the Shinkansen). This is a town where parents (ok, mostly fathers) bring their offspring to watch trains on Sundays. Trainspotting. Like it or love it.

Photos found using google, I searched for 電車大好き (densha daisuki) or "I like trains a lot" and made the collage using Picasa - aren't the kids just adorable.

Full Moon and Jupiter

I just came back, and had to tell you about the full moon and Jupiter that I saw in the late evening night sky. Terrific.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Press Release from The Fish

To: 200,000 Fishermen Around Japan
From: The Fish

Thanks for giving us a break today.

Yours truly.

The Fish

(Photo from The Mainichi: Boats are pictured at Misaki Port in Miura, Kanagawa Prefecture, as the nationwide fishing suspension takes place on Tuesday)

The National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations said that the estimated going rate of A-type heavy oil used in fishing boats was 115,400 yen per kiloliter, roughly triple the price five years ago. For coastal fishing boats under 20 tons, the cost of fuel accounted for about 23 percent of operating costs in 2006, but recently it has reportedly passed 30 percent.

However, since the price of fish is decided by demand, including bidding at fish markets, it has been difficult to shift the increased costs to fish prices. As a result, the number of fishermen being driven toward operating at a loss is increasing.

Maybe the government should support a more vegetarian lifestyle instead of subsidising an unsustainable fishing industry. How about more subsidies to soybean farming and oil seed production. Tofu, natto, miso - the possibilities are limitless. And while they are at it, why not help farmers go organic.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Summer: Are We Going To Win This Battle Or Not?

The Energy Conservation Center, Japan (ECCJ) was established in 1978 to promote “the efficient use of energy, protection of the global warming and sustainable development.”

I love their poster with sumo wrestlers urging people to keep the A/C at 28 C this summer. Are we going to win this battle or not?

省エネ夏場所 (Shou Ene Natsu Basho)
= Save Energy Summer Fight

Watch more Sumo Natsu Basho on Youtube! Want to save electricity? I recommend Mr. Electricity's guide to saving energy in your home.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

"Cool Biz Hair"

A bit weird, a bit funny. Do watch: Ice plus shampoo, sounds great. They call it "Cool Biz Hair" alluding to the campaign to reduce CO2 emissions and try to combat global warming. I think they got that wrong (and they only had one customer so far!). It looks wonderful, I'd love to try it - today we had 32 C here in my parts of Japan. Hot. Summer. Sweat...

Eco-Tourism in Japan

Ecotourism or green tourism started getting attention in Japan about 15 years ago, and if you carbon offset your airticket (which some tour agencies will now help you with) you could probably spend a rather planet-friendly week or two over in these parts of the woods.

Japan Ecotourism Society was founded in 1998 and participates in TIES, the world’s oldest and largest ecotourism organization, to promote the principles of ecotourism and responsible travel.

More details over at Treehugger!

Ecotourism Japan may be the best website for planning your trip. They introduce trips to the Kiritappu region in Hokkaido, the Whole Earth Nature School at the foot of Mt. Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture, and Picchio (Karuizawa region in Nagano Prefecture).

For the conservation and prudent use of regional resources Picchio has developed four well-balanced projects: the Preservation and Management Project, Environmental Education Project, Ecotour Project, and Research Documents Project. Especially, the research on Asiatic black bears focusing on the coexistence of bears and humans has lead to the development of high-quality programs and has had a positive impact on regional development.

Here is my brief list of things to do on a greenish summer holiday to Japan:

1) Hotsprings - enjoy the volcanic activity that heats up mineral water for your bath, naturally
2) Mountain climbing/hiking - Japan's highest mountain, Mt. Fuji, is not the only tourist spot!
3) River rafting - just two hour northwest of central Tokyo, there are great rivers like the Tone
4) Scuba diving/ snorkling - Okinawa or the Ogasawara islands with corals and rare ocean fish
5) Shrines & temples - these are the spiritual "homes" of Japan, and for many foreigners too!

So, come on, I know you have been around. What would you like to add to that list?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Students who lost parents in the Great Hanshin Earthquake that leveled much of Kobe in 1995 will visit China on Sunday to lend their support to children orphaned in the May 12 Sichuan temblor. They will carry messages of encouragement from Kobe area residents to the quake victims.

The trip is organized by Ashinaga, a nonprofit group providing scholarships to children who have lost parents to illness, natural disaster or suicide.

Seven scholarship recipients, five of them affected by the Kobe quake, will take part in the five-day visit. "There are things we can talk about because we are in the same situation," said Yuri Fukui, a high school senior who lost her mother in the 1995 quake. "I would like to tell them they are not alone."

I read the story above about Ashinaga in the Asahi today, and did a search to find out more about this interesting NGO that provides support to orphans:

We have two main jobs. One is to provide financial support to children who have lost either one or both of their parents. The other is to provide emotional support. We hold summer camps for ASHINAGA scholars every summer, where children can express their sorrow and share feelings together. We also provide constant emotional care programs at Kobe Rainbow House, which was built in 1999 as the first day care center for orphans in Japan.

Their history is quite fascinating too, in this country that is so dominated by its world-famous car-makers:

18-year old boy Okajima lost his sister to a traffic accident. He sent a letter expressing his anger and his emotion to a reader's opinion page in a newspaper. That letter was titled "My sister was killed by a weapon on wheels". He received 131 letters of encouragement from all over Japan. Two years later, Tamai (ASHINAGA's co-founder) lost his mother in a traffic-accident. He also felt that his mother was killed by a weapon on wheels. He was then an economic critic, but started writing on the problems of traffic accidents in Japan. He wrote a book called "Victims of Traffic Accidents"...

The boy read the book and wrote a letter to Tamai. They talked about how to support traffic-orphans emotionally and financially. In 1967 they started a group called "Association for Orphans of Traffic Accidents". Tamai was then a TV personality in a program about traffic accidents. He asked the director to invite a boy who lost hif father to an accident to his TV program. The boy read a short essay titled as "To My Dad in Heaven" on the air. Many Japanese were shocked how strongly orphans needed financial and emotional support.
In 1969, an incorporated foundation for traffic orphans was established.

Monday, July 07, 2008

G8 Summit: Will They Act On Climate Change?

What do you think - should the United States wait until China and India also decide to do something about climate change?

On measures against global warming, which are a focal point of the G8 summit, US president George W Bush met with Japan's prime minister Yasuo Fukuda today on Sunday. The two leaders agreed to cooperate in making progress, including setting up long-term targets, according to NHK World. Mr Fukuda said the two countries' opinions are getting closer, and he does not think the United States is losing sight of its direction.

Mr Bush responded that he wants to act in a constructive way, but said he is a "pragmatist" and noted that the issue will not be resolved unless China and India share what the United States is being urged to do.

If the G8 countries will not act, who will? Who can afford to cut emissions and respond to the energy crisis? Who is ready to propose alternatives to the lifestyle we are taking for granted in so-called developed countries?

More over at Treehugger

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Song of the Earth

Part 1 of "The Farewell" of Kenneth Macmillan's "Song of the Earth" taken from Darcey Bussell's farewell performance at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on 8 June 2007.

Music by Gustav Mahler: Die Abscheid, from 1908.

The sun sinks beyond the hills, evening descends into the valleys with its cooling shade. See, like a silver boat the moon sails up into the lake of the sky. I sense a soft wind blowing beyond the dark fir-trees. The brook sings melodiously through the dark. The flowers grow pale in the twilight. The earth breathes a deep draught of rest and sleep. All longing now will dream: tired people go homewards, so that they can learn forgotten joy and youth again in sleep! Birds sit motionless on their branches. The world is slumbering! It grows cool in the shade of my fir-trees. I stand and await my friend, I wait for him for our last farewell. O friend, I long to share the beauty of this evening at your side. Where do you linger? Long you leave me alone! I wander here and there with my lyre on soft grassy paths. O Beauty! O endless love-life-drunken world!

Based on a Chinese poem by Li Tai-Po, a famous Tang dynasty wandering poet; the German text used by Mahler was derived from Hans Bethge's translations in the book Die chinesische Flöte (1907), and poems by Mong Kao-Yen and Wang Wei, plus additional lines by Mahler himself.

"A celebration of Earth's renewal of itself"

Song of the Earth - Intro & rehearsals

G8: Updates from Hokkaido Shimbun

The best coverage of the G8 Summit appears to be from the local media, with videos and English articles about events as they happen now this weekend.

The Hokkaido Shimbun Press

More than 5,000 anti-summit domestic and overseas NGO members and citizens staged a demonstration march in the center of Sapporo on the afternoon of July 5 to promote their hopes for world peace. A performance and a gathering related to the demo also began in the morning at the main venue in the Nishi 8-chome area of Odori Park to appeal for a solution to poverty and other issues. Police cars were deployed around the venue...

The display was planned by Oxfam Japan, the Tokyo-based international NGO.

Akiko Mera, director-general of the NGO, said the stunt was aimed at expressing their hopes that world leaders would address the global issues at hand rather than enjoying a holiday in Toyako. 4,000 journalists from around the world are expected to be arriving this weekend. The Hokkaido Police have said that they will respect legitimate demos but will crack down on illegal activities to ensure the security of people in Hokkaido.

Japan in the Spotlight

Japan gets its moment in the spotlight now with the G8 Summit on July 7-9:

1) IHT: Japan set to show off its expertise on energy frugality

Japan, by many measures, is the most energy-frugal country among the world's developed nations. After the energy crises of the 1970s, the country forced itself to conserve with government-mandated energy-efficiency targets and steep taxes on petroleum. Energy experts also credit a national consensus on the need to consume less.

It is also the only industrial country that sustained government investment in energy research even after oil prices fell.

"Japan taught itself decades ago how to compete with gasoline at $4 per gallon," said Hisakazu Tsujimoto of the Energy Conservation Center, a government research institute that promotes energy efficiency. "It will fare better than other countries in the new era of high energy costs."

According to the International Energy Agency, based in Paris, Japan consumed half as much energy per dollar worth of economic activity as the European Union or the United States, and one-eighth as much as China and India in 2005. While the country is known for its green products like hybrid cars, most of its efficiency gains have come in less eye-catching areas, for example, by cutting energy use in manufacturing.

2) Financial Times: Japan goes missing: invisible host at the summit

The summit sherpas say we should expect nothing of great significance, though their political bosses must insist otherwise. Japan’s preparations have won few plaudits. Ponderous planning has sometimes revealed as many divisions among ministries in Tokyo as among other capitals.

The goal is consensus: better bland accord than public discord. Others in the G8 have used their summits to promote pet projects – Britain trumpeted aid for Africa, Germany climate change. Japan seems to lack any burning priorities.

Two very different views about Japan, 2008.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Getting A Handle On Electrical Use

We've been looking into solar electric power for our home.

As a part of the planning process, I've been trying to get a handle on our electrical usage and find ways to lower it. Reducing consumption has a huge impact on the cost of going solar. So far, we have gone from using 360 kWh in January down to 250 Kwh in June. My goal is an average consumption of 200 kWh per month. This will save us hundreds of thousands of yen (thousands of dollars) in the capital cost of the solar PV system.

Admittedly, part of the lower consumption during that time has to do with longer daylight hours, so isn't really long term savings, but most has been achieved by simply turning things off or unplugging them when they are not in use and changing out the two incandescent light bulbs we had in the house for compact fluorescents.

To make it easier, I've purchased rocker switches that plug into wall outlets and some power strips with individual switches as well. Computers, speakers, the ADSL modem and wireless router all have "wall wart" transformers that suck up energy and even if each is a small amount for each, taken together it is significant. Those, plus the TV, stereo, and DVD player can also be draining your wallet even when they are "off", so best to turn them off at the wall outlet. The new switches make it easy to shut everything down when we leave the house or before retiring for the night.

I've also adjusted the number of fluorescent tubes in our kitchen fixture which is the one that gets the most use. It has five 15-watt tubes and a switch to select either 3 or 5 tubes. We almost never use 5 and even 3 seemed brighter than necessary to me, so I removed the center tube. Now we can select 2 or 4 (30 watts or 60). May not seem like a lot, but it adds up over time. My SO didn't even notice a difference until I pointed it out a week later.

It is also helpful to see how much each electrical item uses on average. One way of course is to look at the label, but that does tell the whole story. For example, our refrigerator is rated at 123 watts and estimated to use 460 kWh per year. But such ratings can vary depending on many factors. Is the kitchen heated? If so, that will increase the work load on the refrigerator. Are the temperature settings for the refrigerator and freezer set properly? Do you keep it at least 75% full? (A full refrigerator stays cool more easily). Do you open the door a lot? Do you keep the coils clean? And so on.

I wanted to know how much electricity OUR refrigerator, the way WE used it, was consuming. To get that answer, I picked up the following gadget:

It is called "ecowatt model T3T-R1" and is basically a watt meter. It plugs into an outlet and then you plug the item to be measured into a receptacle at the bottom of it. I paid about $22 for it.

This model has a digital display that sequentially shows how long it has been plugged in, how many watts have been used, how much CO2 that represents if the power is coming from fossil fuels, how much the power is costing in yen (based on the current rate of 22 yen per kWh).

By learning where your electricity is going, you can adjust your use patterns and improve your home's efficiency.

For the refrigerator, I left the ecowatt plugged in for 3 days to get a good average (87.1 hours actually). The result: In 87.1 hours, it used 6.92 kWh, caused 3.82 kg of CO2 to be released, and cost us 152 yen. From that it is easy to calculate an average hourly rate of 79.5 watts, 57.2 kWh monthly, and 696 kWh per year (and CO2 emissions of 384 kg). Uh-oh! What happened to the manufacturer's estimated 460 kWh per year on the label? Glad I checked.

For you North American readers, there is a similar tool called "Kill A Watt" which actually has some features I like better than those of the ecowatt. Their basic model sells for about $20. You can check that out here: P3 Kill A Watt
I've learned that my refrigerator uses more electricity than I thought and represents 23% of my electric bill. I will be more mindful keeping things off the top of the refrigerator, not opening the door as often or for as long, and not staying in the kitchen with a heater on during winter months.

Next month we are getting a new refrigerator and I hope it will deliver on its efficiency promises - it is larger, but is supposed to use less electricity. It may well do so, since the new one is better insulated and has a lot more drawers and compartments within it, which means that all the cold air doesn't flow out every time the door is opened. We'll see.

Hmmm...I wonder what the microwave is costing us?

Food on the G8 Summit menu

I hope the Lake Toya summit on July 7-9 will not be clouded by media reports about futile terror attack attempts, real or imagined, while millions of people face a much more serious challenge - what to put on their dinner table for their families.

Read more:
NGO Site: G8 Action Network
Official Site: G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit