Our Comment: Learning from Japan and Kyushu
Our Comment: Learning from Japan and Kyushu
In early March 2017 Sustainability West Midlands was invited by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to send several low carbon policy representatives to help promote the Midlands as part of a delegation of the UK Government to Japan.
The aim was to use the new UK industrial strategy energy and climate strand to stimulate new investment and links with the UK. We sent Dr Simon Slater on behalf of Sustainability West Midlands and the West Midlands Combined Authority, and our Board member Matthew Rhodes, on behalf of Energy Capital and the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.
The trip included learning and contributing to the 8th annual UK and Japan Government energy policy exchange, presenting at an energy seminar and reception organised by the British Embassy in Tokyo, and then a roundtable discussion in the south of Japan with the energy cluster in Kyushu.
So what are our initial reflections?
In the same way the UK is often viewed as a gateway to Europe, the close proximity to South Korean and China has made Japan an ideal location for many companies wishing to break into these market places.
Japan is comprised of over 500 mountainous islands, often with earthquake activity, and surrounded by deep oceans, with very little in the way of natural resources. As a result, the country imports over a third of the world’s natural gas, has driven ‘clean coal’ technology, and developed geothermal and hydro technology. However, it is at the early stages of off-shore wind in the form of floating platforms.
In terms of housing and development, there is very little in the energy efficient ‘retrofit’ market, as the rate of redevelopment and renewal is much greater due to earthquake activity or constantly rolling plans of economic redevelopment.
The biggest energy demand is not in the winter, but the humid and hot summers which cause the air-conditioning of homes, offices and factories to work hard to maintain a pleasant environment.
Back in the West Midlands, we have always been impressed by our SWM business members from Japanese companies, who often host good practice workshops with other local businesses on long-term, resilience, and emergency planning. Having now visited their home country we can see how the geography has shaped their expertise. For example, in the top five indicators of most quality of life surveys in Japan, in addition to access to work, good schools, and environment is the indicator ‘not regularly impacted by earthquakes or other natural disasters’.
Japan had an extensive nuclear power programme, until the 2011 earthquake caused the accident at the Fukushima reactor. Because of public pressure the power produced from nuclear has been dramatically reduced across Japan. There was the expectation that the public attitude to nuclear power would have changed by 2017, but it hasn’t and as a result there is increased pressure to find alternative low carbon energy sources. There is also the constant consumer drive to buy new and novel technology. For example heated toilet seats, as well as air conditioning units, are some of the key drivers of domestic energy use.
The good news is that the Japanese sense of community and innovation is hard at work. After the nuclear accident, people were asked to reduce their consumption of energy by 15-20% which they duly did. The manufacturing base, which is larger than the UK, continues to work with the Government on new standards for energy efficiency for key products, such as cars and appliances. There are also joint research programmes with industry to share the risk in developing new technologies such as domestic fuel cells, then helping the transition to the market place through different licensing, manufacturing, and marketing deals. As a result Japan now has over 200,000 domestic fuel cells installed and a viable market established.
It is sobering to think that it was when Japan first held the Olympics in 1964 they launched their first bullet train high speed service. With the Olympics back in 2020 there are plans to launch driverless taxis. Meanwhile the importance of the bicycle is still supported, with a 16% share of all trips in Tokyo, one of the largest in Asia. It also helps the traffic law, similar to the Netherlands, favours cyclists over cars involved in accidents.
The approach to innovation is often very planned, with significant investment in policy, research and infrastructure and staff time to help the manufacturing base stay competitive globally. This also means that when there is a need to change direction quickly, or react to new opportunities the innovation system can take a while to respond. Therefore Japan is keen to build linkages with other global research centres and encourage other countries researchers to spend time in their national centres of excellence.
Local leadership in the regions matters….
In a nation of over 127 million, Japan has a highly-centralised form of Government and funding compared with the regional and local government structures. Our trip included a visit to the region of Kyushu. The region has many similar characteristics with the West Midlands, both were the birthplaces of the industrial revolutions in their countries, both have one of the highest concentrations of manufacturing, especially automotive, and both have a clusters of energy research and technology looking to capitalise on the past skills and strengths to build the products of the future.
Our roundtable meeting at the Kyushu University International Institute for Carbon-Neutral Research was with business, local and regional government, and academics and explored the local success factors for their low carbon energy cluster.
The energy market in Japan currently has strong regional energy supply and generation companies which has provided a key local player. The other common themes were of local council leadership, policy and communication helping to catalyse the key stakeholders, the university acting as an anchor for research and development, then the roll out of community action, on and off-shore renewable energy projects, hydrogen and electric car refuelling networks, and the attraction of inward investment and diversification of local manufacturing into new energy technology.
What matters for the West Midlands?
On a national platform alongside the UK Government and the Northern Powerhouse, we promoted the range of investment opportunities within the West Midlands through the Midlands investment playbook, West Midlands low carbon investment prospectus, and the Energy capital initiative. Working with Marketing Birmingham and our own local networks we have made introductions between Japanese companies, researchers and local opportunities.
As the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) becomes established it would be worth exploring the potential of building further links with Kyushu, given the similarities and opportunities for joint research and knowledge exchange, and the proximity to key Asian markets.
The final implications are that what Kyushu has achieved within a highly-centralised nation, is nothing the West Midlands doesn’t have or couldn’t achieve. We don’t have a strong regional or localised energy generation and supply framework, but we have many key players willing to address this gap as part of the Energy Capital initiative. We have the research and manufacturing base. With the slow emergence of the WMCA and future Mayor we could have the local leadership we need to catalyse the willing local businesses, universities and councils to accelerate the change we need in low carbon energy and jobs.
Dr Simon Slater, March 2017
The views expressed in this article are those of Dr Simon Slater, on behalf of Sustainability West Midlands. Any errors are my own. Thanks to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for making this trip to promote our region possible, and the hospitability provided by the British Embassy team, Japanese Government, and Kyushu University.