Following Through on Sustainability is Easier When You Have the Carrot and The Stick – Just Ask Japan

In October 2011, the Japanese Cabinet—still reeling from the Fukushima reactor meltdown earlier that year—approved an energy white paper calling for reduced reliance on nuclear power and increased emphasis on renewables.

A little over a year after the approval of that policy, I wondered to myself if Japan was sticking to its goals, or if—with the immediate shock of the Fukushima disaster receding—they had “fallen off the wagon”?

Far from losing steam, the desire to create a more sustainable way of life in Japan enjoys considerable momentum. And in large part, their success is due to the presence of both a carrot and a stick.

The carrot takes the form of in incentives provided by the Japanese government. Industry Minister Yukio Edano approved Japan’s feed-in tariffs for renewable energy—including solar, wind, and geothermal—in June 2012.

The tariffs are among the highest in the world. It’s ¥42 (US$0.525) per kWh for 10 years for systems less than 10 kW; and slightly less—¥40 (US$0.50)—for larger systems, but for 20 years. The rate will be reviewed annually for subsequently connected systems.

Japan is currently the world leader in cleantech patents, with companies like Sky Electric and Futaba Industry making exciting developments in wind turbines and solar panels, respectively. Sky Electric creates small-scale micro-generators that enable high output even with a gentle breeze, while Futaba Industry creates metal frames that can raise and slant large solar panels in snowy areas to maximize their solar efficiency.

If feed-in tariffs provide “the carrot,” “the stick” is provided by the general populace, who are intent on holding politicians’ feet to the fire.

In June 2012, more than 1000 Fukushima citizens filed a formal complaint to have criminal charges filed against the nuclear reactor officials for failing to prepare for the disaster and delaying the release of data on the spread of radiation. In July 2012, the country launched its first Green Party, in response to the desire to have a party that that puts nuclear abolition and other green policies at the top of its agenda.

There’s even a popular band called Ski which is standing up to nuclear power with their song “Free From Nuclear Power Plant,” which is currently a big hit in Japan. Instead of singing about relationships, or having fun, or other typical pop song subjects, these girls are singing about meltdowns and radiation exposure. Not your average Top 40 sing-along.

The lesson for other countries is that takes a combination of factors—the involvement of both the government and the general citizenry; the presence of both the carrot and the stick—to make sustainability a way of life rather than a fleeting fad. Anything less, and you risk falling off the wagon.

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