The Resourcefulness To Save Our Resources

 

Tetsundo Iwakuni

Member of the Japanese House of Representatives

Member, Parliamentary Commission on Environment

Director-General, International Department of the Democratic Party of Japan

 

International Parliamentary Hearing on Climate, Energy and Forests in Asia

Taipei, Taiwan, March 1-2, 2008

 

 

    What are some of the most significant obstacles to making concrete headway on the issue of climate change? Perhaps we are tacitly giving in to selfish motivations – °»It°«s less convenient to walk than to drive,°… °»It°«s not as comfortable if I turn down the air conditioner,°… °»It°«s time-consuming to recycle,°… or even °»I won°«t be around long enough to suffer the terrible effects of global warming.°… But for those of us who believe in reincarnation, we°«re going to wish we had worked more diligently on these issues when we had the chance!

 

    But all levity aside, there remain serious challenges to embracing responsibility for global warming and taking concrete action, whether as a nation, an administration, a community, an industry, a company, or an individual. Is it that politicians are unable to come to an agreement? If so, why? Are the business leaders concerned about the costs of going green? Is it that we yet have limited knowledge and awareness of the facts, both of existing environmental damage and alternative technology? Or is it that, despite all our proposals and best intentions, we just don°«t have the resources to fund such things as research and development, targeted education for all our citizens, industry subsidy incentives? Even if proposals become policy, how will they be enforced?

 

    I believe we have come a long way in terms of researching the issues, generating proposals, and developing relevant technology. However, in order to take decisive action on climate change, we need to identify the obstacles such as those mentioned above, and become much more resourceful in finding solutions. While we may debate the issues from various angles, I would like to address four quite obvious, yet key elements that are essential if we are to be successful in our endeavor to save the Earth.

 

 

1. Transforming Our Views of the Environment

 

    In order for us as an international community to take effective action, all of us, as individuals, first need to transform our views of the environment and take ownership of this issue. It is only when every individual is personally motivated to take action, each in his or her own respective arena of responsibility, that we can expect to see meaningful and lasting change in the home, the company, the local community, and the society at large.

 

    Allow me to offer the following, perhaps unconventional, ways of viewing our relationship to the Earth and its natural resources.

 

•   Paying °∆dividends°« to the Earth   

 

    Capitalist systems that prospered throughout the past century have generally been driven by these three principles:

 

(i) to provide clients with desirable products and services;

(ii)    to maintain a stable work environment for employees; and

(iii)   to deliver the highest dividends possible for shareholders.

 

    In the 21st century, I propose that we revise this framework of capitalism to include the Earth as the largest shareholder. Economic and all other forms of human activity depend on, and are sustained by, the existence and use of the resources of our Earth. In other words, while people may invest money, the Earth invests all its natural resources. Clearly, the Earth is the biggest stakeholder.

 

    Consequently, we need to consider how to deliver the highest dividends to the Earth. Transforming our view in this way would lead to more accountable and responsible decisions in all our endeavors.

 

•   Learning from traditional views of coexistence with nature

 

Since ancient times, the Japanese people have embraced this philosophy of coexistence.

 

 °»Even the mountains, rivers, trees, and shrubs can attain Buddhahood.°…

 

    This is a teaching from Mahayana Buddhism, which means that Buddhahood can be attained not only by humans but also by all beings, even the mountains, rivers, trees, and shrubs. Likewise, we have been taught that °»Buddha nature is present in all things,°… meaning that we should respect all entities, both animate and inanimate, for they all possess the Buddha nature.

 

    Similar philosophies stressing the importance of cherishing nature certainly exist in all countries. We have a wealth of wisdom in our traditions and cultures. I feel we should build on these traditions and rise above our differences in order to spread the °»philosophy of coexistence with nature.°… This, in turn, would reinforce a sense of common humanity that serves as the underpinning of cooperation beyond national borders. Furthermore, I believe that this °»philosophy of coexistence°… should be given special emphasis in the education systems of all countries, for in the final analysis, it is the younger generations who will carry on the work in the decades to come.

 

•   Three forms of health

 

    The first is °»human health.°… Numerous research studies have shown the various ways in which environmental problems adversely affect the health of people. There are so many issues to be considered in this regard, such as the use of pesticides and the pollution created by economic development in general.

 

    The second is the °»health of all living things.°… Our natural environment is seriously impacted by deforestation and the destruction of ecosystems. Environmental destruction is frequently accelerated by the loss of balance in the ecosystems of plants and animals. This is a phenomenon that has been witnessed in various parts of the world. Let us continually remind ourselves that it is humankind that has wrought much of the environmental damage, often in the name of development and progress. It is therefore our moral obligation to protect the habitat of plants and animals – working to save the environment should be just as much for their sake as for the sake of humankind.

    Finally, the third form of health is the °»health of the Earth.°… We must preserve the health of our Earth for our own posterity, as well as for the descendents of all forms of life that inhabit the planet.

 

    As suggested earlier, I believe that transforming our perspective with regard to the environment is a key catalyst in taking personal ownership of the issues and feeling empowered and motivated to take action.

 

 

2. Providing Widespread Support and Incentives for Taking Action

 

    This seems so obvious that one might think it hardly deserves mention. However, this issue should not be underestimated – we should never cease to examine more carefully any and all measures that would make it easier for individuals or institutions to embrace responsibility and take action.

 

•   Facilitating access to information, technology and resources

 

    First to be considered are the nature and quality of information.  In addition to official publications and reports issued by the government, there is a treasure trove of research provided by entities such as academic institutions, think tanks, and trade associations. The °»Global Map°… initiative is but one example. Generated through the cooperation of cartographers throughout the world and the United Nations, the Global Map now provides essential data for effective policymaking.

 

    In tandem, we should pursue all avenues for disseminating facts and information as widely as possible. For instance, the media, schools, professional associations and grass-roots organizations can each play a key role in facilitating access to information across a wide spectrum of society. Another suggestion would be the establishment of an objective rating agency that could use standardized indices to monitor and compare the progress across cities, countries, and continents. This is vital to raising the level of awareness regarding the problems as well as the array of potential solutions.

 

    With regard to the dissemination of information, it is important to keep in mind that there should not just be a one-way flow of information to the public. For public officials to be able to make wise decisions, they must continuously and actively seek the opinions of private citizens.

 

•   Green is °∆green°«

 

    While we remain hopeful that a sense of moral responsibility will be incentive enough to take action, my many years in investment banking tells me it is probably more realistic that we face the facts – it is human nature to be driven by profit. Hence we not only have to promote the concept that it is profitable to go green, we have to develop tangible incentives so that going green will indeed generate more °∆green°« (money - as in the American dollar).

 

    In terms of immediate gratification, this means that we must develop more cost-effective technology that will be attractive to the thriftiest of housewives or business managers, create government subsidies that will ease the capital expenditure necessary for conversion, and producing data that will highlight the differences in cost.

 

    Perhaps less tangible to the average consumer will be the exorbitant cost that must be borne in the future if we fail to take action now. Therefore, we should provide consumers with as much relevant data as possible so that they can rationally calculate the cost-effectiveness of making the transition sooner rather than later. For example, we could provide projected energy costs in 5 years, 10 years, etc. as the supply of natural resources continues to shrink, or comparative data of savings made by similar households that have already implemented energy-saving measures. Likewise, disseminating case studies of companies that have successfully increased their profit margin by going green could provide inspiration and motivation to many others.

 

 

3. Implementation at the Local Level

 

    It goes without saying that despite our best efforts, many ideas will never result in meaningful, measurable progress unless we can accurately identify the appropriate method for effective implementation and enforcement. Implementation and enforcement can be initiated on different levels – individual citizens, local government, or national government, for example.

 

    While there is sometimes a tendency to believe that nationwide policies are the most thorough and effective, the reality is that there is usually so much red tape, endless debates, and partisan barriers that it takes an inordinate amount of time to implement even one policy. Indeed, the many initiatives that have been launched in various municipalities suggest that a decentralized approach may be more effective.

 

    While serving as the mayor of Izumo, I have had the opportunity to experience firsthand the effectiveness of initiating measures on a more local level. Izumo, a mid-sized city in the Western part of Japan, is a place steeped in tradition and known for its political conservatism.

 

•   Vending machines

 

    In 1994, the council members of Izumo unanimously voted to enact a law to ban alcoholic beverage vending machines. Behind this action was the fact that each year, the 5.5 million vending machines throughout Japan consumed 2 million kilowatts of energy – equivalent to the annual production generated by two nuclear power plants. According to one research study, the annual energy consumption of a single vending machine is almost equal to the annual quantity of energy consumed by two households. Moreover, vending machines, by their very nature, necessitate the use of individual packaging, thereby raising additional concerns regarding the use of natural resources and waste.

 

    It may have been preferable to abolish all vending machines; however, it would have been virtually impossible for this policy to gain immediate acceptance among the public, who viewed them as a convenience. Izumo therefore made a strategic decision to initially target only the alcoholic beverage vending machines – a compromise that met with much less resistance, especially in light of other grave issues associated with them, such as juvenile delinquency. In 1999, the last of the alcoholic beverage vending machines were removed from the storefronts of Izumo.

 

    Although it took five years to fully enforce the law, what is important is that decisions to take action were made without delay. Not only was the proposal framed in such a way that it would appeal to the public, but the policy was introduced at the local level, where there were fewer administrative and legislative hurdles to contend with. Certainly, central governments have many other concerns of a national and even international nature. Within that context, it is quite understandable that a measure of relatively small scope such as the abolishment of vending machines, despite its merits, would not be deemed a priority – municipalities are therefore better placed to enact such laws. When cities such as Izumo take similar action, the aggregate result is both measurable and significant.

 

•   Tree doctors

 

    Among other uses, plants serve as independent environmental factories, absorbing CO2 and emitting oxygen. As such, the National Science Council of Japan placed the value of the various functions of leaves throughout the country at around 70 trillion yen a year. The importance of one leaf, let alone entire forests, to our survival as human beings is undeniable.

 

    On the national and international levels, we tend to focus on the risks of deforestation and illegal logging. While these issues are of concern to particular locales in Japan, many communities tend to view them as beyond the scope of their jurisdiction. An issue more closely related to their everyday lives is the health and preservation of the trees in their communities.

 

    It was for this reason that we implemented a system of °∆tree doctors°« shortly after I took office in 1989. Armed with specialized education and training, these doctors are responsible for maintaining the health of trees and other plants, researching disease and making recommendations to local governments regarding their overall preservation. Since this service is also available to private citizens who have questions about plants in the neighborhood or even their own gardens, the awareness of plants as living entities and the care given to them have grown tremendously among the public, particularly children. While it began in the city of Izumo with a team of only 10, this system was later eagerly adopted by the national government, and presently comprises 1600 such tree doctors throughout Japan.

 

    Aside from the obvious benefits of a °∆tree doctor°« system, the point I would like to make here is that, as in the case of vending machines, swift implementation was possible precisely because it was initiated locally. As seen in this example, local initiatives can have enormous impact, whether by inspiring other localities to follow suit, or by serving as a key case study to convince national policymakers.

 

•   Waste management

 

    Generally falling under the purview of municipalities, waste management is yet another area in which local initiatives have been both appropriate and effective.

 

    In July 1990, Izumo launched an aggressive campaign to reduce waste. Stores were asked to display a sign in their window indicating their support for minimizing unnecessary packaging. Various citizen groups, community associations, and grass-roots organizations then called on their members and friends to patronize only those stores that displayed the sticker. Within 48 hours, this sticker was proudly displayed in the windows of the vast majority of stores throughout the city.

 

    The following year, Izumo launched the second part of its campaign. Until that time, residents could dispose of unlimited amounts of household waste, in any kind of bag. In an effort to curb the quantity of waste produced per household, Izumo instituted a new system which mandated the use of specially designated garbage bags for all waste disposal. The distribution of these bags, made of a specific kind of environmental-friendly material, was to be uniquely controlled by the city offices. To assuage residents°« concerns about inconvenience and to ease the transition to this system, the city decided that each household°«s yearly supply of 100 bags would be provided free of charge. What is more, the city would buy back any bags left over at year°«s end for 40 yen each. On the other hand, if a household exhausted its supply before year°«s end, they had to purchase additional bags at 40 yen each.

 

    The benefit to residents was readily apparent – instead of having to buy their year°«s supply of garbage bags, they would receive them for free; those who were particularly conscientious about the production of waste could even make a profit at year°«s end. Before this method was instituted, the burden of the costs of waste collection was borne equally by all residents, regardless of the amount of waste produced by any given resident. However, under the new system, those who produced less waste were rewarded, and those who produced more had to bear a greater burden. The benefit to the city was also evident – one less bag of waste amounted to 120 yen less in costs related to the collection and disposal of waste.

 

    With these kinds of incentives, the participation in this program was enthusiastic, and within 12 months, Izumo was able to reduce its waste production by 24%. Even though the city had to cover the initial cost of bags to the residents and buy back the unused bags, the savings were substantial, resulting in a significant surplus in the waste management budget.

 

 

4. Enforcement and Positive Reinforcement

 

    Enforcement often conjures up images of policing, pressure, and penalties. However, the traditional approach of setting up independent oversight agencies, court hearings, and fines can have very high administrative costs. While we all know that it is necessary to enact policy °∆with teeth,°« there is another approach we can take. In fact, enforcement need not be an issue if the mechanisms for enforcement have been built into the implementation stage. As the aforementioned example of waste management shows, the incentives, both for the residents and the city, were the only enforcement mechanisms necessary to produce a measurable result.

 

    In other words, enforcement can be more of a °∆pull°« than a °∆push.°« Consider the following strategies, which indeed highlight benefits over penalties:

 

•   Healthy competition

 

    Here, I would like to elaborate further on the idea of an objective rating agency mentioned earlier. Since 1994, the Oriental Economist has been issuing ratings of 700 cities throughout Japan, based on indicators of public service levels, safety, per capita income, etc. There are similar studies that are regularly released in other countries as well.

 

    These ratings are, in effect, an independent gauge of accountability – how well our public officials are putting our tax money to use. This is all the more evident when comparing neighboring cities or cities of the same general size and conditions. These reports have often served to stimulate discussion both among public servants and private citizens, leading to the reassessment of existing programs and services as well as the generation of new goals and proposals.

 

    By developing and including certain indices of environment-related performance, these ratings reports could likewise engender a healthy competition between cities by

 

a)  bringing greater awareness to the public regarding their environmental efforts, and

b)  encouraging those in public office to prioritize environmental initiatives.

 

This kind of healthy competition could generate more interest and enthusiastic participation across all sectors, thus accelerating the process of implementing change.

 

•   Negative taxes

 

    Such ratings could also serve as the basis on which the tax incentives are distributed. Building on the notion of °∆dividends°« mentioned earlier is the idea of negative taxes. In short, municipalities would be rewarded by a reduction in taxes depending on their performance in reducing emissions, waste, and energy consumption, with the amount of tax benefit scaled to match performance. To illustrate, let us say that the national government is the °∆company,°« and municipalities are the °∆shareholders.°« The more the °∆company°« benefits from a reduction in emissions, waste, and energy consumption, the more it will be in a position to share the °∆dividends°« with its °∆shareholders,°« the localities that invested not money, but time, cooperative spirit, and effort into the improved performance of the company as a whole.

 

    Although the loss in tax income may be of concern, this could be offset in part by the resulting savings in administrative expenses or overhead costs (as in the case of Izumo°«s waste reduction program). What is more, lower tax rates can also stimulate the local economy by encouraging investments; a city with a beneficial tax rate can attract more residents and businesses.

 

•   Self-enforcement

 

    Ultimately, we should aim for self-enforcement, for there is nothing more effective or efficient. However, for this to become a reality, it takes more than implementing practical measures and changing specific behavior – it requires a fundamental shift in mindset. It is for this reason that I advocate an emphasis on individual motivations and relevance in everyday life. As the mindset changes, so do the standards dictating what is acceptable and unacceptable human behavior.

 

    Of course, it may necessitate the national government to first set the tone, setting somewhat forceful and heavy-handed measures at the national level. But at the same time, measures of positive reinforcement could go a long way toward encouraging the public to make an active choice to participate enthusiastically in this endeavor. While this may appear far too idealistic, we need only to turn to history, which is replete with examples of the evolution of standards of morally and ethically acceptable behavior as human beings.

 

 

Conclusion

 

    In conclusion, I reiterate that for us to advance on a national and global scale on the issue of climate change, it will necessitate our joint resourcefulness in developing the appropriate initiatives and incentives based on our knowledge of individual and institutional motivations. We are making great headway in conducting research, bringing this issue to the table, and developing new technology. However, we are still struggling with implementation and enforcement. It is crucial that we reexamine the most basic aspects of our endeavor – what will stir individuals to action, what are the obstacles.  Only then will it be possible to move beyond proposals to tangible and measurable results.

 

    As legislators, we are naturally responsible for generating proposals and enacting laws, but let us continually remind ourselves that our primary responsibility lies in serving our citizens; thus, if we wish to implement initiatives that will truly be effective, we must take active steps to empower the public by soliciting the opinions and concerns of our respective constituencies and incorporating them into our policies.

 

    We must make sure that the environment is not merely a topic addressed by activists and politicians, but by everyone in our homes and in our communities. In fact, let us make sure that our citizens will have such high awareness and concern for the environment that they will only elect those of us who will work hard to pay °∆dividends°« to the Earth.

 

    From a global perspective, it is sometimes tempting to point the finger at those nations that are currently undergoing extensive development and industrialization and whose environmental standards are still lagging. However, it is necessary to acknowledge the fact that the greater burden of responsibility for our present environmental crisis rests with the industrialized nations, whose development has led to the existing conditions. Having created much of the problem, it would seem hypocritical to impose stricter standards on the later-developing countries, which may become barriers hindering their development.

 

    This does not mean that we should compromise our standards – the issue of climate change absolutely necessitates the cooperation of all countries. What I am suggesting is that the developed countries have an obligation to exert greater effort to support environmental initiatives, not only in their own countries, but in the developing regions as well, for instance by making more significant contributions to development aid or to the sharing of technology. This is a perspective that surely deserves serious discussion in the upcoming G-8 meeting.