The first thing an American might ask after visiting a middle-class Japanese home is: Why do the people of this wealthy nation put up with it?
Jammed into a tiny plot of land, the home is two-thirds the size of an American house, with no central heating, poor insulation and antiquated plumbing. During the winter, it may be warmed sparingly with portable kerosene heaters. Refrigerators are top-of-the-line, but hot running water still is not universal.
And, beyond the front door, the commute to work is often by crowded subway, bus or train.
The sharply different lifestyles of the world’s top two industrial powers help explain why Japan emits so much less carbon dioxide than the United States. It also illustrates why it may prove difficult for 150 nations meeting next week in Kyoto, Japan, to agree on a single, binding plan to reduce emissions of gases linked to global warming.
Carbon dioxide, a byproduct of burning gasoline and other fossil fuels, is the most common of these “greenhouse” gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere. Unless emissions are controlled, scientists warn, rising atmospheric temperatures will raise ocean levels and disrupt the global climate.
Today, the amount of fuel that various industrialized societies burn has more to do with lifestyles and economic structures than with the efficiency of their similar technologies. And Japan may come closest to the kind of economy and society environmentalists believe is necessary to ward off damaging global warming.
The Japanese economy is more than two-thirds the size of America’s but produces barely one-fifth the carbon dioxide.
“The Japanese are used to biting the bullet in their lifestyles and working for the common good,” said Lee Schipper, an American scientist who has written extensively about the link between energy use and lifestyles.
“The American consumer, with his big home, three-car garage and urban assault vehicles, puts lifestyle first. Given what he is used to, how can a U.S. president say, ‘Let’s stop this binge or raise the price of gasoline just a few cents’?” Schipper asked in a telephone interview from Paris, where he works with the International Energy Agency.
But even Japan may not be beyond “binges.” The government predicts that if Japan’s standard of living continues to rise as expected, greenhouse gas emissions could increase sharply.
That may be one reason the Japanese, in the lead-up to the Kyoto treaty talks, proposed that industrial nations’ emissions be reduced by only 5 percent from 1990 levels by 2012. The European Union favors a 15 percent reduction by 2010, and others want even deeper cuts, especially small island states worried by the threat of rising seas.
The United States, meanwhile, by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, has offered a plan weaker than Japan’s: a modest stabilization of emissions at 1990 levels by 2012.