(First of a series)
KITAKYUSHU, JAPAN?The air is cleaner these days, but Japanese wearing white gauze masks aren?t obviously thrilled that what they breathe is good for their health.
Pollution-laden gases spiraling from smokestacks, captured in sepia-colored photographs of this city as Japan relentlessly pursued industrial growth from the ruins of its World War II defeat, have all but vanished from thermal power plants.
Instead, the towering chimneys from the plants, fueled by coal that had fouled the air, belch out steam free of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming that the nation is attempting to eliminate by resorting to nuclear power and other clean energy sources.
State-of-the-art high efficiency turbines and generators are responsible for zero carbon emissions from coal as an energy source for factories, like the Yawata plant of Nippon Steel Corp., one of the world?s largest, here on the southern island of Kyushu.
Like the other companies that have made Japan a global economic powerhouse, NSC constantly innovates and manufactures a wide array of products. They range from soda cans to light iron sheets used in cars to make them more fuel efficient, to railways for Japan?s bullet trains.
And like others engaged in the steel industry which primarily uses coal as a reductant in the making of iron, NSC also helps the Japanese government meet commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.
The 1997 international accord hammered out in the ancient Japanese city required nations to reduce heat-trapping gases emitted by power plants and other industrial and agricultural sources by 2012 by an average of 5 percent below what they were in 1990.
Executives of Nippon Steel told reporters on a visit under the auspices of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) that the company had been able to reduce carbon emission by 9.8 percent from the 1990 level.
Using more efficient technology and recycling waste materials, it has also cut energy consumption by 9.1 percent over that 18-year period.
The company has been reusing 30 percent of plastic and packing containers generated in Japan and is providing technology to China, India and other countries that has resulted in reducing 130 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
At Yawata, 13 water tanks regularly spray mountains of iron ore and coal imported from Australia to prevent dust in the windswept Nippon Steel premises at the edge of Dokai Bay from spreading to the nearby areas.
Forests are grown around 10 NSC mills across Japan to absorb CO2 and preserve biodiversity. Gray heron, raccoon dog, wild duck, red foxes and deer roam in these woods. In one community forest at Hikari, 51 species of birds live, the NSC says.
Deforestation in many countries, including the Philippines, is also a factor in climate change.
?People here used to suffer fits of coughing because of pollution,? says Yumiko Maehara, a program coordinator at JICA, which conducts training seminars on environment, health and education, among many other subjects, for Third World countries. ?Now, it?s not as bad as before.?
But many Japanese, from Kitakyushu to Tokyo, can be seen wearing masks, obviously wary of the quality of air they breathe.
?Japan?s compliance with the Kyoto protocol is way below its commitments,? says Kyoko Gendatsu, a senior producer at NHK or Japan Broadcasting Corp., in a media briefing at its headquarters in Tokyo.
For Japan, any campaign to help save an imperiled planet depends on the availability of environment friendly energy. The country relies on substantial fuel imports to sustain its economic juggernaut, says the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan.
Lessons from oil crisis
The oil crisis of the 1970s has taught Japan to explore other energy sources.
Today, nuclear power provides a third of the country?s needs. There are 55 nuclear plants across the nation, two more are under construction and 11 are in the advanced stage of planning, says the FEPC.
The country is also attempting to explore solar and wind power, among other alternative sources, but the vagaries of weather, poor energy conversion rates and inferior cost efficiency are severe drawbacks, says the federation.
The Philippines has a nuclear power plant in Bataan, which has been mothballed by the Aquino administration since 1987 following the EDSA I People Power Revolution that ousted the Marcos regime that built it, apprehensive of recurrent oil shocks.
The Manila government spends millions of its scarce resources to keep the nuclear reactor in tiptop shape.
RP?s nuclear debate
In recent months, there were moves in Congress to activate the plant because of looming power shortages amid skyrocketing oil prices.
The powerful Catholic Bishops? Conference of the Philippines, in a pastoral letter on Thursday, shot down the initiative, joining a debate heard before?about the threat of an atomic meltdown in the event someone goofs, or, God forbid, an earthquake.
?There are 90 million of you guys,? a Japanese environment expert tells a Filipino reporter. ?Don?t tell me you don?t have the genius to run that plant efficiently like we do.?
Japan?s nuclear power industry has had accidents, but there?s not been a disaster of apocalyptic proportions in the nation that, like the Philippines, is prone to earthquakes.
Environmental activists, like the NHK, are keeping a close eye on operations of the Japanese nuclear power industry.
Japan?s largest television network is engaged in a campaign to reverse climate change, sending reporters to film the frigid landscape and deep waters of Antarctica and putting a high definition camera aboard the explorer Kaguya on Feb. 9 to capture spectacular images of the earth rising during a penumbral lunar eclipse.
NHK also practices what it preaches, like other Japanese companies called to voluntarily contribute to help meet Japan?s commitments under the Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent below its 1990 level.
Cutbacks on heating are enforced in the NHK offices. And as in many other offices, there are reminders to use fluorescent lamps, to cut back on the use of paper and the utilization of recycled materials.
Such giants as Nippon Steel and Panasonic are producing environment friendly and innovative products.
For instance, at Panasonic, visiting journalists were shown a ?life wall? where television shows and other entertaining and educational computer gimmickry are shown on a huge panel without an actual TV receiver and manipulated by the palm of a hand of a person acting like a magician casting a spell.
Toshiba has helped set up ?ultra-supercritical? power plants that reduce greenhouse emissions in the steel industry, where coal makes up 81 percent of energy consumption.
With the growth in world energy demand and progress of global warming, the reduction of noxious gas from thermal power plants is essential to the creation of a low-carbon society, in addition to the use of nuclear power and other renewable energy resources.
The Paris-based International Energy Agency, in a report last June, says that Japan has the world?s most energy efficient steel industry that in the immediate post-war period spewed pollutants.
But gases in the air continue to scare the Japanese. For them, wearing masks is giving them a feeling of being safe rather than sorry.