JEI's Spin on the News

Japanese Plan Tougher Accounting For Pollution

Monday, June 7, 1999

On March 19, the cabinet of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi set an ambitious antipollution goal: to reduce the nation's airborne emissions of cancer-causing dioxins by 90 percent in four years and to bring Japan's standards for dioxin exposure into line with international rules. The goal is necessary in light of the fact that the country burns about 75 percent of its garbage every year, and the incinerators are major sources of dioxin emissions. The government also has come under fire recently because it has two conflicting standards for total daily intake (TDI) of the deadly substance. The Environment Agency says 5 picograms (one-thousandth of a gram) per kilogram of body fat is the limit, while the Ministry of Health and Welfare says 10 picograms is the maximum allowable TDI. Moreover, the World Health Organization recently lowered its TDI for dioxin to 1 to 4 picograms, putting pressure on Tokyo to bring its standards into line.

To achieve the emissions reduction goal, Tokyo first must be able to accurately measure emissions. The cabinet and bureaucracy are drafting the necessary laws and plans to do this, but this, in turn, has led to a wider antipollution drive. Washington has mandated collection of data to compile a toxic release inventory — a list of the harmful wastes that every plant and company spews into the air, earth and water. Internationally, this kind of statical compilation is called a pollutant release and transfer registry and Tokyo is moving toward adopting rules to create a Japanese PRTR.

Not only would this give government policymakers better information to make decisions, but it would allow the public to see how every company stacks up environmentally. Firms with poor records can use it to direct their remedial efforts. Firms with positive environmental records, on the other hand, can turn it into a competitive advantage. Managers of Union Bank of Switzerland AG's Ecofund, for example, have just purchased 20,000 shares of Ito-Yokado Co., Ltd., citing the retailer's energy-conservation, waste-reduction and open-disclosure policies.

Japanese multinational firms are realizing that investors insist on good environmental citizenship. Sony Corp., Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd. and a few other leading domestic manufacturers recently decided to begin making full accounts of their environmental policies and expenditures. Under questioning from foreign investors, the companies have agreed to report on energy conservation efforts, zero-waste manufacturing programs, participation in remedial efforts and other "green" activities. While activists welcome the release of more information, they also point out that there are no national or global standards for reporting this kind of data. Nevertheless, the recent moves by both Tokyo and Japanese industry are positive signs on the "green" front.

EI's Spin on the News" are the opinions of one of more members of JEI's staff and do not necessarily represent the views of the organization.

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