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Comparing Australia and Japan in Going Green

Comparing Australia and Japan in Going Green

Australia and Japan are two countries set to make key contributions to the next chapter of Asia’s story. This said, just as both nations have enjoyed many decades of economic prestige and power, it’s also clear in this decade both must pursue a fundamental change of course if they wish to maintain - and build upon - the successes they’ve enjoyed as societies in times gone by. Though there are of course many layers which make up the stepping stones of a country’s future progress, undoubtedly growing the green industry looms large as a key one.

So, let’s look now at what comparisons can be made, what contrasts exist, and where there is scope for Australia and Japan to work together in going green.

A Snapshot of Two Societies

Although as aforementioned (and discussed further below) Australia and Japan share a great deal in common, there are also countries of vivid contrasts. This is especially visible when it comes to the size of each nation’s geography, in terms of population, and also population density.

It’s held that Australia has a total land area size of land: 7,682,300 sq km, and a total size of 7,741,220 sq km overall.  By contrast, Japan has a land size of 364,485 sq km, and a total size of 377,915 sq km overall.  While both nations possess immense natural beauty, much of Japan’s land is replete with mountainous terrain. This of course adds a far greater deal of complexity when seeking to utilise land for industry. Additionally, while Australians amount to approximately 25 million in total amidst the sizeable spread of national land, Japan holds approximately 125 million within its bounds, albeit within a far smaller territory. Though it’s indeed the case that most Australians reside in capital cities along the coast, the difference in population density between the Great Southern Land and the Land of the Rising Sun are immense. In Australia, there is 3.3. people per square kilometre, whereas in Japan it’s 338.2 people per square kilometre.

To a regular person walking down the street, the differences listed here may lead to a first impression that they’re interesting tidbits, but not especially relevant to a discussion of countries going green. Yet in reality - as most keen green advocates would know well - these distinctions speak to the unique challenges each country will face in terms of formulating and deploying a strategy for achieving net zero. So, while both Australia and Japan share the aspiration to green, and have considerable wealth in their societies and sophistication in their economies - which enables them to drive more efficiently and speedily towards this goal than many other countries - it’s also the case that by many measures they will be travelling separate routes to a shared destination.

Japan Following the Legacy of Fukushima

There is no doubt it’d be impossible to write the modern story of Japan’s aspirations to go green without reference to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011. This event was a seminal moment in the history of Japan’s energy sector at the time, and - just as it had a momentous impact on energy policy formulation elsewhere - its legacy remains visible today in terms of the choices Japan has faced after, and the challenges it has had to wrestle with.

Debates around nuclear energy post-Fukushima in Japan have been intense. The reality is that Japan’s relationship with nuclear energy has of course always been fraught - owing to the country’s history having been attacked with nuclear weapons during World War 2 - and since Fukushima tension between many Japanese leaders who’ve supported it strongly, and a majority of the public who’ve wanted it phased out, has complicated Japan’s path to going green. This is because nuclear energy is indeed commonly viewed as cleaner than coal power, and thus - notwithstanding the safety concerns surrounding nuclear power - if not for Fukushima, it would have perhaps easily served as a ‘transition’ energy source that would’ve aided Japan in winding down the use of dirty fossil fuel energy sources, while upscaling its renewable energy supply.

Like in Germany and elsewhere globally, the nosedive in public perception nuclear energy took in Japan post-Fukushima greatly harmed the public support that nuclear advocates would have envisioned for it prior, and a path that Japan could have taken towards a sustainable future. Yet it’s important to understand, this path is not the only road now available. After all, nuclear power has never been used - the lone Lucas Heights facility in NSW isn’t a commercial nuclear power station - or held popular support in Australia. And, while there is now an effort from some quarters to put the prospect of it on the table, the widespread consensus in Australia is nuclear’s window as an option has passed (if it ever existed), and Australia’s road towards achieving sustainability will be by the increase in capacity of renewables like solar and wind power.

The Urgency of Action and the Avenues to Pursue It

Any measured assessment of the state of Japan’s energy mix in 2023 would illustrate it has a long way to go, and a short time to do it, if it’s to meet its goals for going green. It’s been estimated that by 2030 renewables will account for over 34% of Japan’s energy mix. The fact is its goal of cutting emissions at least 46% by 2030 is really terrific when considered in light of the big challenges the nation faces, but it also means a greater urgency must surround its future in this area than has been the case in years prior.

This said, there are also great sources of hope surrounding Japan’s renewable energy journey. Over the past decade, the nation has been pushing hard on the development of on-water -AKA ‘floating’ - solar farms. This is informed by the space constraints Japan faces in terms of the limited available and suitable space on-shore to create such installations. And unquestionably, Japan’s endeavours in this area not only stand to benefit it, but other nations in time who can look to Japan’s example as a guiding light for their own pursuits of on-water renewable projects. Australia is also commencing a very exciting chapter in this regard, with waters off the Gippsland coast in Victoria set to become Australia’s very first offshore zone for wind farming.

Furthermore, in addition to its ongoing existing assets in this area - such as a strong public transport network across the nation which reduces the need to use private vehicles - steps like the Tokyo local government’s move to mandate the installation of solar panels on new homes and buildings from April 2025 is outstanding.

Japan’s Future in Context: Looking for a Green Light

STC Japan City Image

When Japan’s economy is considered in context, a particularly strong case emerges for why the nation has a special interest in going green, and also aiding other nations in doing so. The economic story of the Japanese nation since the end of World War 2 has been immensely eventful, with it reaching both a soaring high and stunning low. Following its defeat in World War 2, Japan in the decades after grew to become an economic powerhouse. So much so that once the 1980s and early 1990s had rolled around, a New York Times poll found many Americans felt the greatest threat posed to the United States was not the military threat of the Soviet Union, but the economic competition posed by Japan!

Ultimately, this competition Japan posed to the United States for the status as the world’s biggest economy was not to last. Japan’s asset price bubble burst in the early 1990s, and once it did it was plain and clear Japan’s scope to ascend to the top of global economies was off the table for the foreseeable future. What followed since then has come to commonly be known as the ‘Lost Decade’ - which has ultimately now turned into multiple decades - where the nation that once enjoyed annual economic growth which was the envy of the world, slipped into the doldrums. Put simply, the Japanese economy today is a mere shadow of what it was before the bubble burst. The quest to find a path to put Japan back on the road - and ideally a highway! - to economic growth that would once more be the envy of the world has been an enduring aspiration for Japan’s political class.

The reality is there are a lot of factors working against Japan in this regard such as its ageing population, but ultimately an in-depth discussion of these would best occur elsewhere, and are beyond the scope and focus of this article. Yet what is essential to understand is while many other nations in Asia - such as China, India and Indonesia - look forward to an economic future where they should enjoy consistent economic growth over time, Japan is stuck in a much slower gear, and accordingly is set to be overtaken. Even if another nation or two in Asia experiences a stunning crash like Japan did, ultimately the region is certainly in frame to be the economic engine room of the world’s growth in this century, and thus there shall be no shortage of economic competition for Japan’s leaders in Tokyo to contend with.

This trajectory of Japan and other nations in Asia is a particularly pertinent factor when it comes to considering the value a growth in green industry can provide a country. As aforementioned, Japan does not have the size of Australia, and it possesses far more challenging terrain, that makes developing and utilising land more difficult. Yet these factors have certainly not inhibited Japan from becoming a technological powerhouse in decades prior, and one with an immense degree of influence, not only as a recognised tech leader and exporter globally, but also as a country with a substantial degree of ‘soft power’. Put simply, Japan has been able to position itself - and done so via a very deliberate campaign with support from national leaders - as a ‘country of cool’, surrounding all things tech and futurism. In essence, Japan represents in this soft power space what the UK does in royalty, what Italy does in fashion, and what Australia does as a land of great outdoor adventures.

Accordingly, for all the nations that could stand to benefit from a decisive and compelling embrace of green energy and green technology, few are better candidates, especially given Japan’s desire for a new vigour in its domestic economy, and its longstanding history as a leading global exporter of high tech goods. The reality is existing challenges will not go away overnight, and Japan in 2023 has a big struggle on its hands based on the present dynamics to make a clear-cut and enduring turn away from fossil fuels. In turn, it’s held Japan will not be able to rely on carbon capture to reduce its emissions to the same degree that other nations can, and carbon capture forms a significant part of the green formula many nations hold for getting to net zero. But as aforementioned earlier in this article, Japan has already made great strides in so many ways, and there are clearly numerous tools in the national toolbox to help build an even better green plan.

Yes, it is not cynical to say it is indeed hard to imagine right now Japan will be able to achieve its goal of going totally green anytime soon. Particularly given the struggles and overall lack of dynamism the country has had since the bubble burst - allowing for some notable exceptions such as has been seen with the success of Abenomics in certain areas - but it’s equally true few could have imagined the bubble bursting which set Japan down the path to its current state. Put very simply, Japan is due for a change of fortunes in its future, and with a strong green energy push there could be an avenue for it to try and claim the mantle as the undisputed leader of renewable energy innovation in Asia, and the wider world. It would have strong competition in this regard; Australia for instance has its own pathway to becoming a renewable energy superpower available to it. Yet as history shows, economic competition can bring a big benefit to many other nations in the international arena - and the more competition for green innovation and growth the faster the push to global sustainability would be! - and certainly the big nations who engage in it first and foremost.

The Scope for Local Change

Any discussion of what countries are doing around the world to go green is of course exciting. Especially because - while the challenge of climate change is growing rapidly (and requires an increasingly rapid response) - many examples show many countries in this decade are indeed picking up momentum as it pertains to driving positive change on the path to sustainability. Yet it’s also the case that with such gigantic resources and hurdles surrounding the governing of countries, it can be easy for regular folks reading an article like this to wonder, ‘OK, I really support green action and it’s great to see progress by countries, but as I’m just one person, what I can do exactly to help make a difference?’ It’s understandable one person looking up the scale of what countries are doing could feel a bit daunted. But the good news is, within this area, one person can indeed really make a fantastic difference. Whenever a household adds a rooftop solar system to their home, they make a small, but significant contribution to building a better future.

A rooftop solar system can drive down the cost of power bills today and provide some defence against any rise in them tomorrow, but what’s more, the installation of one can also help send a clear-cut message to Australian leaders that there’s ever-growing grassroots support for green action. And that’s a very important signal to send, because just as the urgency is increasing surrounding the need for nations like Australia, Japan, and others to drive faster towards net zero, so too is it important that a clear-cut and decisive consensus is evidenced across the domestic community in support of reducing emissions, and upping renewables. This so as to more effectively facilitate speedy and decisive progress in making better policy, and delivering better results in this area. Alongside other ways to positively participate in effecting worthwhile change - such as by advocating to public leaders for more renewable energy funding - acquiring a rooftop solar system is a brilliant way to make a direct impact, for the benefit of one household, and indeed the wider world.

In addition to the resources outlines above, further reading regarding renewable resources can be found here.