by Mark Pendergrast

I’m going to talk about Japanese renewable energy in a minute, but first let me explain why.
In 2010, I published a book on public health (Inside the Outbreaks), and as a follow-up, I concluded that the overarching threat to the world’s public health that we face in the coming decades is climate change, for a number of reasons. According to most scientists, three trends will conflate to create substantial problems. 1) We will run out of oil. 2) Climate change will have a profound impact on the environment and our lives. 3) The world’s population will grow from 7 billion to 10 billion people.

A 2009 collaborative report from The Lancet and University College London called climate change “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.” We will have to extend known public health efforts (vaccination, surveillance, proper nutrition and exercise), even as travel becomes more difficult and expensive. We will have to rely more on locally-grown food and less meat. Population growth can be curtailed through the offering of voluntary universal family planning, but such birth control efforts are likely to succeed only if high infant mortality rates are dramatically lowered. If we do not act promptly and wisely, however, population is likely to be controlled through epidemics, starvation, and wars over resources.

What happens when we run out of fossil fuel? Consider that one pound of California lettuce (80 calories) requires 4,600 calories of fossil fuel to grow, wash, package, and transport to the East Coast. In terms of health care, transportation is vital, including ambulances, helicopters, and private vehicles for out-patient visits. But oil is used for a wide array of other products needed for health care, including catheters, IV bags, surgical gloves, band-aids, prosthetics, rubbing alcohol, radiological dyes, oxygen masks, hearing aids, and heart valves, all of which are made from petroleum derivatives. Oil depletion will impact the poor disproportionately as the cost of heat, food, and transportation escalates.

Global warming due to increased CO2 and other greenhouse gases will cause the thermal expansion of the ocean and will melt more of the ice caps, continuing to raise the sea level. Projections range from a few inches’ rise to as much as 20 feet if the Greenland ice sheet deglaciates and permafrost melts to release trapped methane gas. Saline waters may inundate coastal megacities such as Mumbai, Lagos, Shanghai, Dhaka, Tokyo, and New York, vast areas of countries such as Bangladesh, and islands such as the Maldives. Saltwater would infiltrate freshwater supplies. Public health experts project that insect-borne tropical diseases such as malaria are likely to spread to new regions, while areas such as sub-Saharan Africa and the American Southwest will probably suffer horrendous droughts. Agriculture will suffer from new pests as well as difficult growing conditions on depleted land. Poor air quality will worsen allergies and asthma while increasing the likelihood of lung disease and heart attacks. Coral reefs will die along with ocean life they support. Heat waves and Category 4 and 5 hurricanes may sweep continents, while millions of species could go extinct. Armed conflict is likely to escalate as people fight over scarce resources or react to the influx of desperate refugees. The most severe consequences of climate change will affect the poorest people in the poorest countries, despite their own negligible contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. The World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 deaths already occur annually in low-income countries due to climate change’s impact on crop failures and malnutrition, as well as increasing the incidence and severity of floods, diarrheal diseases, and malaria.

I could go on. But wait a minute — what about Japan? Wasn’t this supposed to be a blog about Japan? I’m getting there, have patience.

Not all Eco-Model Cities
In the summer of 2010 I was deeply immersed in studying renewable energy options for a book I’m hoping to write on responding to climate change (it’ll be called 2084, a sly reference to George Orwell’s 1984) when I got a notice through the National Association of Science Writers about an Abe Fellowship for Journalism grant, which pays for U. S. journalists to go to Japan for six weeks.

Hmm, I thought, as I held the Abe pamphlet. Japan imports virtually all of its fossil fuel. It’s a technologically sophisticated country. So the Japanese must be doing some innovative things with renewable energy.

I googled a bit, and within 15 minutes I had discovered the Eco-Model Cities program, begun in 2008. Thirteen Japanese cities had been designated as Eco-Model Cities, and they were using various renewable strategies, including solar panels, micro-hydro generators, wind turbines, electric vehicles, hydrogen power, biodiesel, wood pellets, and geothermal systems. Perfect.

I applied and got the grant. I already had my plane reservations when the earthquake/tsunami hit on March 11, 2011. I nearly didn’t go, but things had calmed down by May 11, which is when I showed up, exactly two months later.

It was an extraordinary experience, and I have just completed and published a short as a result of the trip, called Japan’s Tipping Point: Crucial Choices in the Post-Fukushima World (available as an ebook or paperback). It is a small book on a huge topic. In the post-Fukushima era, Japan is the “canary in the coal mine” for the rest of the world. Can Japan radically shift its energy policy away from nuclear and fossil fuel, become greener, more self-sufficient, and avoid catastrophic impacts on the climate?

Japan is at a crucial tipping point, and I discovered that I had been naive in thinking that the country was already making massive changes. The Japanese boast of their eco-services for eco-products in eco-cities, yet they rely primarily on imported fossil fuel and nuclear power, live in energy-wasteful homes, and import 60% of their food. That may be changing in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Maybe. But as I documented, Japan lags far behind Europe, the United States, and even (in some respects) China in terms of renewable energy efforts. And Japan is mired in bureaucracy, political in-fighting, indecision, puffery, public apathy, and cultural attitudes that make rapid change difficult.

Yet Japan is also one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with friendly, resilient people who can, when motivated, pull together to accomplish incredible things. As an island nation, Japan offers a microcosmic look at the problems facing the rest of the globe. And as Japan tips, so may the world. The country has recently passed feed-in tariff legislation to encourage renewables, which is a hopeful sign. But the law isn’t enough, and it won’t go into effect until July of 2012.

This is the first post in a three-part series that will explore Japan’s renewable energy opportunities — including solar, wind, biomass, hydro, and geothermal energy — as well as recycling, food self-sufficiency, transportation, and other issues. Stay tuned!

i-3530c72b4711019d88c970a4e067c224-MP&cover2.jpgMark Pendergrast is the author of Inside the Outbreaks: The Elite Medical Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (which was featured in the ScienceBlogs Book Club) and several other books, including, most recently, Japan’s Tipping Point. Email and book information is available at his website.