For Japan, which one to choose -- economic growth or ecological sustainability -- is no longer a debate. Many players in Japan's public and private sectors have opted for more environmentally sound practices. Upon invitation from a Tokyo-based think tank, Keizai Koho Center, The Jakarta Post's Evi Mariani visited the country to meet people who work on being green. Here are her reports from the visit.
Japan is going green. Both the public and private sectors are working to develop environmentally friendly practices. They clean the air and the rivers, reduce, reuse and recycle waste, plant more greenery, reduce fossil-based energy use and create innovations that make their job easier.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) is part of this effort.
"Addressing climate change impact is our top priority. We want Tokyo to be a city with a lot of greenery," said Yasuhiro Nomura, Director for Public Relations of Environmental Policy Division at the TMG.
TMG wants to host the 2016 Olympics. It still has eight years to go -- not to build mega projects like China did -- but to make Tokyo an "exemplary city which highlights the environment".
By 2016, TMG targets to have 1,000 hectares of new greenery. Its plan is to have a sea forest called "Umi-no-Mori", a project that will change Tokyo Bay's landfill, made of garbage and surplus soil, into a beautiful forest. In addition to that, it will convert school yards throughout the metropolis into lawns "where children can run around barefoot", as shown on a pre-Olympic TMG plan.
In addition, the TMG also plans to double roadside trees to 1 million and open new city parks larger than 300 hectares in size, to be developed mostly on the seaside, and to add greenery on rooftops, wall surfaces and railroad areas.
"We have asked citizens and business to participate. From companies, we ask them to donate money. There are other ways to participate. Citizens can plant in Umi-no-Mori," Nomura said.
Aside from efforts related to the Olympics ambition, the TMG has implemented several measures to clean the air and water. Since 2003, it has required diesel vehicles to meet certain standards of emission.
Tokyo's sewage system has had a much earlier investment. In the 1970s, the government built a widespread sewage system, thus significantly improving the quality of river water, which had deteriorated "during the period of high economic growth", according to TMG's Environment of Tokyo 2007 document.
In March 2008, the TMG released its environmental master plan. It includes measures to reduce CO2 emission by promoting renewable energy sources, to reduce dependency on automobiles while encouraging eco-friendly cars and to ensure healthy soils by eliminating the illegal dumping of industrial wastes.
Much of these efforts are concerted to prevent what they call "heat island phenomenon", a high-temperature region locally formed in urban areas. The government believes Tokyo is getting hotter; temperatures increases in the inner city have been greater than in the suburbs. The isothermal line forms an "island", hence the term heat island. Studies have shown that the increasing temperatures have caused health problems such as heat stroke and sleep disorders.
"Some of the measures are costly for businesses, so we faced heated arguments -- for example -- over the measure prohibiting old diesel cars," Nomura said.
The TMG, therefore, provided subsidies and soft loans for businesses. To reduce air pollution from automobiles alone, including providing loans to businesses, the TMG in 2008 allocated 33.6 billion yen. For all environmental measures, it had allocated a little less than 7 trillion yen in 2008.
The TMG also believes that global warming is a reality and that the impact is happening, thus environmental measures must be undertaken.
"History shows that the economy and environment push against each other. But nowadays people emphasize the environment more," he said.
The private sector shares this belief and JFE Steel Corporation is one of them. Established in 2003 from a merger of two old steel mills -- Kawasaki Steel Corporation and NKK Corporation -- JFE has a mission of "contributing to society with the world's highest technology", JFE's corporate profile says.
The "highest technology" JFE aspires to applies not only to making good products but also to environmentally sound industrial practices.
Steel mills are traditionally dirty; they produce a lot of air pollutants and hazardous wastes. The area in which JFE is located, between Yokohama and Kawasaki, is an industrial area, home to several industries. Nearby residents live were reported to have suffered primarily from asthma. These pressures forced the industry and the city administrations to invest in a healthy environment.
The profile now boasts statements including "it is an *eco-steel mill' of the 21st century with lush greenery that is friendly to people and the environment".
Besides the steel mill, JFE's 8.32-million-square-meter compound also houses recycling facilities. To make steel, JFE uses blast furnaces that traditionally use coke to fire. But innovation and investment allows JFE to use plastic pellets made from labels on plastic beverage bottles which replaces the coke. JFE believes the practice is much cleaner because not only does it reduce the usage of dirty coke it also helps by recycling plastic waste.
The caps and the bottles themselves, collected from households in several Japanese cities, are transformed into resin flakes that will be recycled into products such as polyester threads for clothing, egg containers and hangers.
JFE also has a plant for recycling electric home appliances and for making boards from waste plastic, replacing boards made out of wood, whose supply has been decreasing from Southeast Asian countries -- including Indonesia.
The steel mill itself has attempted to save energy by collecting the tons of steam it produces everyday and using it as an alternative energy source supplementing its natural gas purchased from the government and other fossil-based fuels.
The environmental measures are not cheap. Yoshitsugu Iino, JFE's executive assistant for climate change policy group said the measures were a "drastic investment". The company spent 362 billion yen (US$4.1 billion) in investments related to energy savings and another 507 billion yen for environmental measures, including reducing the emissions of hazardous pollutants into the air and the water.
"It was not an economic decision; there was no economic value in the measures," Iino said. But JFE, he said, had calculated that energy-saving investments would pay off in the long run and serve as the company's competitive edge.
"We'll be stronger," he said confidently.