No. 10 — March 10, 2000

 

Weekly Review

SALT PROJECT CANCELLATION REFLECTS JAPAN'S "GREEN" EVOLUTION
--- by Jon Choy

In an unprecedented bow to environmentalists, Mitsubishi Corp. and the Mexican government announced March 2 the withdrawal of their plan to build a huge salt production facility beside a pristine bay on Mexico's Baja peninsula. Of concern was the plant's potentially negative impact on the gray whales that use the bay as a nursery and on an adjacent, officially designated wilderness area. Although an exhaustive four-year environmental impact study had concluded that the factory posed only minimal danger to both the whales and the wildlife sanctuary, environmentalists made the project an international cause celebre. The partners feared that the political costs of proceeding would outweigh the expected economic benefits. The rare retreat is one reflection of the ongoing evolution in Japan of "green" issues and of the responsibilities of government, companies and individuals to protect the environment.

Over the past decade, Tokyo has put more emphasis on recycling. Reclamation of certain types of household waste — aluminum, plastic and newspaper — was initiated by local governments in the 1980s not just for environmental reasons but also for the practical goal of slowing the growth of trash and the consequent need for scarce landfill. Beginning in April last year, however, separation of plastic, glass and paper for reprocessing became mandatory for large firms — a requirement that will be extended this April to cover about 160,000 smaller companies in specific industries. As of April 1, 2001, makers of appliances must collect and recycle fixed percentages of their products. Manufacturers mainly will shoulder the costs of this regulation, but consumers will have to bear some part.

 

Japan's green evolution is taking place on a variety of other fronts, too. These include:

•Air pollution - The government has a strong record of combating the air pollution caused by emissions from vehicles and electric power plants fired by fossil fuels. Tokyo has set tough exhaust standards and has encouraged the development of pollution-reducing and energy-conserving technologies. While this macro-level approach has yielded good results, Japan's large vehicle fleet and sprawling highway system still can adversely affect the quality of air at the micro level.

A 17-year legal battle by residents of the Tokyo suburb of Kawasaki against the Metropolitan Expressway Public Corp. was settled in May 1999 when both sides accepted a court-appointed mediator's compromise. The ruling, which ended Japan's longest-running air-pollution case, said that automotive emissions were detrimental to the living conditions of people residing near expressways, but it did not force the government-run entity to admit wrongdoing or to pay restitution. The government did agree, however, to budget ¥400 billion ($3.6 billion at ¥110=$1.00) to relieve traffic congestion in the Tokyo suburb. Court-ordered settlements of at least two other air-pollution cases indicate that judges are becoming more sensitive to green issues.

Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara continued the tradition of environmental activism by local authorities when he unveiled a plan February 18 to require all diesel-engine vehicles entering the city to be equipped with a filter that removes harmful particulates from their exhaust. With the cost of installing such a filter projected to be about ¥600,000 ($5,500), operators of the estimated 650,000 diesel trucks registered in Tokyo are opposed to the idea, as likely are the owners of about 240,000 diesel-powered cars who live within the metropolitan area. How the proposed rule would be enforced is not clear since inspecting every diesel vehicle coming into the city would be impractical. Nevertheless, in announcing the plan, Mr. Ishihara again lifted an environmental issue high on the public agenda and sparked a desirable debate.

In 1997, the government made a commitment as part of an international accord to ameliorate the problems of global warming by pledging to reduce significantly Japan's production of so-called greenhouse gases (see JEI Report No. 10A, March 23, 1998). Tokyo is hitching many of its energy conservation projects and related technology development programs to this wagon, but policymakers understand that success ultimately depends on the willingness of people to modify their life-styles.

The public's concern about air pollution recently has focused on its more mundane aspects. Complaints about foul odors and smoke due to trash burning were up sharply in 1998 over the previous year, reversing a downward trend that began in 1972. Ironically, people may be burning more trash as a way to avoid tougher solid-waste laws. The Environment Agency has asked an advisory panel to recommend ways to strengthen and plug loopholes in the Offensive Odor Control Law, which regulates the burning of trash outside of incinerators. One proposed change would expand the ban on burning items that produce noxious fumes — for example, rubber, oil and leather — to cover uninhabited as well as inhabited areas. Another idea is to prohibit the incineration of materials not currently designated as "waste" under the law; at the moment, recyclable items like tires fall beyond the law.

•Dioxin standards - An important negative consequence of Japan's reliance on incineration to dispose of waste is its number-one position on the global list of dioxin-emitting countries. The carcinogenic gas is created when certain kinds of plastic are burned at relatively low temperatures. According to the United Nations Environment Program, Japan was responsible for about 40 percent of the combined dioxins released into the atmosphere by 15 industrialized countries in 1995. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry recently reported a worsening situation: Japan released an estimated 5.3 kilograms of dioxins into the air in 1998 compared with just under 4 kilograms in 1990. This contrasts with sharp reductions in dioxin release by other countries, such as Germany.

Exposure to even tiny amounts of this substance — which generally is measured in picograms (one trillionth of a gram) — have been shown to increase the risk of cancer. Not surprisingly, a national debate ensued when a 1998 Environment Agency survey revealed an average contamination level of 6.5 picograms per gram of soil at 286 landfills and 28 picograms per gram of earth in 56 agricultural areas, with levels as high as 8,500 picograms near some incinerators. The issue became red-hot in early 1999 after word leaked that vegetables and other produce from an area of Saitama prefecture were tainted by the carcinogen.

The Environment Agency and the Ministry of Health and Welfare subsequently came under attack for having set relatively high thresholds for the tolerable daily intake of dioxins. Compared with the World Health Organization's benchmark of 1 picogram to 4 picograms per gram of body fat per day, the 5-picogram and 10-picogram limits, respectively, of the Environment Agency and MHW seemed excessive. In July 1999, the Diet approved legislation aimed at controlling and reducing Japan's production of the harmful gas; the law went into effect in January. The goal is to slash dioxin emissions by 90 percent within four years. The implementing regulations set contamination standards for soil (1,000 picograms per gram) and water (1 picogram per liter) and at least matched WHO's TDI norm.

•Pollution and chemical-release tracking - Another consequence of the early 1999 dioxin scare was the rapid passage through the Diet of legislation creating a Pollutant Release and Transfer Register for tracking emissions of harmful substances. While modeled after similar systems in the United States and other industrial countries, critics charge that the pending framework, which will become effective in FY 2001, was weakened by a turf fight between the Environment Agency and MITI. The law does not cover so-called endocrine disrupters because Tokyo claims that evidence of harm to humans from these sources is insufficient. Nor does it give local authorities enough power and discretion to encourage small companies in their jurisdictions to work with the new system. Partly in response to this critique, MITI has announced plans to create a Web site that will serve as a central repository for information on environmental activities as well as what government and industry are doing.

Japan's increasingly green attitude also can be seen in Tokyo's promotion of environmentally sound development in other countries, particularly in Asia. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, aid for foreign environmental projects continues to rise. In FY 1997, for example, such aid totaled ¥2.8 billion ($25.5 million) in Indonesia, ¥2.6 billion ($23.6 million) in the People's Republic of China, ¥2.3 billion ($20.9 million) in Thailand, ¥1.4 billion ($12.7 million) in the Philippines and ¥1 billion ($9.1 million) in Malaysia.

Finally, the Environment Agency is scheduled to be upgraded to a ministry when the central government's bureaucracy is reorganized January 1, 2001 (see JEI Report No. 27B, July 16, 1999). Although it will be one of the smallest ministries in terms of staff and budget, the new status accorded environmental affairs can only help advance Japan's green agenda.

These developments are good news for the environment. However, much remains to be done. The National Police Agency reported in mid-February that incidents of illegal dumping of industrial waste rose 18.9 percent last year from 1998's total to 379 cases. Rogue waste handlers evidently had exploited a loophole in the current law by dumping their toxic payloads at sites in more than one prefecture. The NPA is working with the Environment Agency to address this problem and toughen enforcement.

A recent survey by an independent organization presented a dim picture on another sensitive front. Japan was the world's top importer of endangered species in 1996, according to the Tokyo office of the Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce, an international monitoring network based in Cambridge, England. Using government reports, TRAFFIC claimed that Japan had imported more endangered tortoises and birds than any other country and the second-highest number of live primates and rare plants listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. TRAFFIC suggested that Tokyo intensify the monitoring of pet shops and animal breeders as well as increase public relations efforts.

Many government agencies are touting a new environmental sensibility, but bureaucratic problems persist. For example, the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Finance are at odds over the taxation of fuel-efficient vehicles. MOT wants to tax vehicles according to their fuel efficiency to encourage sales of high-mileage cars and trucks. MOF, in contrast, is lobbying for a special tax on gas-stingy cars, claiming that their currently favorable tax status violates the principle of making users of roads help pay for construction and maintenance. Such difficult issues show that Japan's green evolution is an ongoing process.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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