Environmental Issue

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What would you do if you could no longer afford what you take for granted?

The planet on which we live is currently exposed to various environmental problems such as global warming and climate change. We casually enjoy clean air, water, and food every day, along with the living environment we need for our daily lives. What would you do if these things that you take for granted were no longer available to you?

In this chapter, we consider environmental issues, and especially energy issues, which increasing in importance around the world.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which we often see mentioned these days, also focus on environmental issues such as climate and resources: for example, SDG 13 focuses on “Climate Action”, SDG014 on “Life Below Water”, and SDG 15 on “Life on Land”.

In order to sustain the global environment and the resources of the oceans and the land in the future, it is important to halt the progression of climate change. This means we need to reduce emissions of CO₂ and other greenhouse gases, which is a global challenge.

Three-quarters of the world’s CO₂ emissions come from the production of energy, which provides us with the heat, light, and transportation that we enjoy every day. Therefore, rethinking the way we use energy is crucial if we are to maintain the global environment.

Fig 1. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Total electrification is the last resort for reducing CO2 emissions

By the way, when you think of “energy,” what do you think of? Many of you probably think of electricity, gas, heat, light, and transportation. These processed forms of energy are known as “secondary energy”.

In contrast, unprocessed forms of energy such as coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear power, hydroelectric power, wind power, and solar energy are known as “primary energy”. The burning of fossil fuel forms of primary energy, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, is the main source of CO₂ emissions. So, what do you think of “secondary energy” produced using forms of “primary energy” that do not emit CO₂, such as nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, and solar energy sources ?

Fig 2. Proportion of greenhouse gas emissions by industry
Source: Climate Watch, the World Resources Institute, 2020; Our World in Data, 2020

Most people would probably answer “electricity”.

In fact, if we want to live without CO₂ emissions, it is important to electrify transportation, air conditioning, and hot water supply, for example by using electric vehicles and technologies like EcoCutes (electric heat pumps)*. It seems that simply generating clean electricity is not sufficient to deal with the problem of climate change.

* In Japan, the electric power sector accounts for 45% of CO₂ emissions from energy sources, and the “other” power sector accounts for 55%. This shows that there are still many areas that can be electrified.

Fig 3. Primary and Secondary Energy Source: Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, Energy White Paper 2021

The harmful effects of electrification

As we move forward with electrification, we still need to think about what the power sector should look like.

The global decarbonization trend began to grow in the 1990s, with nuclear power and renewable energy power generation taking center stage. From around 2000, renewable energy expanded rapidly, especially in Europe. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake, growth in nuclear power generation has leveled off, and renewable energy has become the world’s main power source. However, this rapid expansion of renewable energy and rapid decarbonization policies are actually beginning to create other problems. Cloudy, windless, and drought conditions reduce the amount of solar, wind, and hydroelectric power, respectively, that can be generated. However, despite the instability of renewable energy supply, if the supply shortage continues the fossil fuel inventory will be depleted in one fell swoop. On the other hand, the trend toward decarbonization has led to a decrease in fossil fuel extraction and development, and any attempt to replenish inventories will cause a sudden imbalance between supply and demand, causing fossil fuel prices to soar and impacting the economy and people’s lives. This situation of a fossil fuel shock, rather than just oil shock, is now a reality.

Fig 4. Changes in global investment in fossil resources
Source: OECD, IMF

Fig 5. Trends in global GDP and primary energy consumption
Source: OECD, IMF

So, what should the electric power sector look like?

he answer lies in diversity. Electricity is a lifeline today, and therefore a stable supply of it is required.

Each power generation method has its strengths and weaknesses, so in today’s rapidly changing world we should use a diverse combination of power sources that can withstand a variety of risks. This combination should be adapted according to the circumstances of each country.

For example, in Japan, what would you choose?

Support thermal power for the stability of its supply and its ability to adjust to long- and short-term conditions, support nuclear power for its self-sufficiency and economic efficiency, support solar and wind power while buying storage batteries and saving electricity, or support renewable energy development that takes advantage of Japan’s access to the world’s third largest geothermal resources and sixth largest ocean area…

Probably, any of these could be the right answer depending on the global and domestic situation, or on the progress of technological development. It may be most important for each of us to have a clear understanding of what we are throwing away in order to gain what we can.

Tab 1. Various power generation methods and their pros and cons

What can individuals and families do?

What should individuals and households do to make our existence on the planet sustainable?

Emissions from households account for about 16% of all CO₂ emissions in Japan, and individual and household CO₂ reduction efforts can help reduce overall emissions.

Fig 6. Percentage of carbon dioxide emissions by sector in Japan in FY2020
Source: National Center for Promotion of Global Warming Prevention Activities

As of June 2022, the government has called for consideration of a point system to encourage households to cooperate in saving electricity. In the past, Japan has called for the use of temperature settings for air conditioning and the introduction of energy-saving home appliances.

For example, the “Eco Action Point” system is being promoted by the Ministry of the Environment. However, this program has not been widely adopted because the content of the program is not particularly generally applicable, and it does not seem to be encouraging individuals and households to change their behavior.

In addition, the point system for households currently under consideration by the government unfortunately does not provide significant economic benefits, with a model household receiving only a few tens of yen per month in return for saving 3% of their electricity. It seems that there are many issues to be addressed, such as the fact that households which are already engaged in energy-saving efforts are unlikely to benefit from the program.

Introduction of an “Environmental Point App”

In order to reduce CO₂ emissions, 16% of which are produced by the household sector, a mechanism to encourage people to change their behavior on a wide scale is necessary. Some kind of incentive is needed to encourage individuals and households to take action to proactively reduce CO₂ emissions. We therefore consider the introduction of a system in which taxes are reimbursed through an “environmental point application”.

An “environmental point application” is a system in which points are accumulated through actions that lead to CO₂ reduction, such as the use of energy-saving home appliances and the generation of solar power, and the accumulated points can be used to reduce income tax and inhabitant tax. These actions include consumption activities such as the use of energy-saving home appliances, LED lighting, solar power generation, storage batteries, and hybrid and electric vehicles, as well as daily activities such as adjusting the temperature of air conditioning and not leaving devices on “idle” mode. Each action is quantified and visualized, accumulates a certain number of points, and ultimately returns money to the user through income and inhabitant tax reductions.

Making individual actions numerically visible through such a system is expected to increase public awareness and provide incentives for individuals to reduce their CO₂ emissions – not only for short-sighted purposes such as “reducing utility bills”, but also to encourage people to voluntarily take actions that broadly consider the environment and the Earth, which will lead to the realization of a sustainable society.

Fig 7. Image of Environmental point application