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Lessons from Japan's transportation systems

[The following is based on Co-Founder Paula Glick's recent family adventure to Japan]

Having just returned from a family vacation in Japan, I can confirm for those that have not been there, that it is a fantastic place to visit. As you might know, or imagine, Japan is a country of spectacular beauty and seemingly infinite cultural and historical richness. People are notably kind and helpful and very civil to one another. Oh, and if you haven’t heard, you really can get a decent meal at 7-Eleven.

With an eye to the environment there are many things to highlight. One is the beautiful but excessive packaging of all food items but yet the streets are remarkably clean. This is especially notable given that there are virtually no garbage bins anywhere. It seems that people are responsible for their own waste and they execute on that very well. Among all the differences though, it is the public transit system that struck me as most remarkable. In Tokyo, for example, rail is the preferred mode of transport and the rail system map, for a novice like myself, is at first overwhelming with its web of subway lines, commuter trains and long-distance trains.

Railway Map of Tokyo and Suburbs (subways, JR, commuter, and Shinkansen lines)

At one transit station we frequented, Shinjuku, there were 36 platforms serving three dozen rail lines. Just finding a specific subway line could be difficult, though I have to say that signage was truly impressive, in both English and Japanese. Apparently, everyday, 3.5 million people pass through Shinjuku station.

Tomoyuki Tanaka's hand-drawn illustration of Shinjuku Station

And of course, we took advantage of the Shinkansen, or high-speed bullet trains that connects major cities. At one point, between Tokyo and Osaka, my phone’s speedometer showed us travelling 300 km/h (though apparently these trains, which are a Japanese innovation, can reach 350 km/h).

The impressive rail transportation system is no doubt partly responsible for the fact that Japan is one of the most energy‑efficient economies in the world. But while energy efficient, it must be acknowledged that it is far from sustainable. Japan’s energy supply is heavily dependent on hydrocarbons. Japan’s carbon intensity dramatically increased following the shutdown of every nuclear power plant following the earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. And while carbon intensity is now in decline and nuclear reactors are being brought back online, the carbon intensity of power generation is among the highest of IEA member countries. In 2019, fossil fuels accounted for 88% of the country’s total primary energy supply (TPES), the sixth highest share among the 31 countries of the IEA (International Energy Agency).

Japan is committed to changing things. It has a strong vision of achieving energy independence, carbon neutrality and energy sustainability. This is part of its “Green Growth Strategy”. The Strategy includes ambitious “expansion of renewables, a continued recovery of nuclear power and the deployment of new technologies, including low-carbon hydrogen, safer advanced nuclear reactors and carbon recycling to decarbonize the electricity sector.” It also includes an innovation strategy with strong involvement from the industrial sector.

Given Japan’s strong history of innovation and technological advancements, it will be interesting to watch Japan rise to its energy challenges. I for one am expecting notable achievement. After all, a country that can make Shinjuki station work should have some of the same skills and determination to make a clean and sustainable energy economy work too.

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