Japan Trades In Suits, Cuts Carbon Emission
Two years ago, the Japanese government — essentially with the stroke of a pen — instituted a new policy that has so far trimmed more than two million tons of greenhouse gases from the country's growing emissions.
The feat is particularly impressive because it required overturning a decades-old tradition.
When Yuriko Koike was Japan's environment minister, one of her jobs was to figure out how to deal with climate change. So she hit on what — in Japan — was a radical idea: Get men to stop wearing suits. That way, office buildings could ease up on the air conditioning.
A Radical Proposal
Showing up with no tie and no jacket was seen as rude in many circles. But Koike had the support of the charismatic prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi.
Koike's Cool Biz initiative launched June 1, 2005. The top government officials — the heads of the ministries — came to work without jackets and ties. Koike, as it turns out, was out of town.
"I was in Paris on that particular day, and I saw the satellite news program in my hotel in Paris," she recalls. "And I was shocked. I tried to shock people. But I was shocked."
The prime minister looked good. Others ... not so much.
"Somebody looked very loose or rude or funny," Kioke says. "It created a real shock!"
The tie-makers complained. And what about the men who weren't good at fashion? Would they panic? The suit and tie were safe and reliable.
The Environment Ministry published a help sheet with suggestions of how to dress during the summer. Koike came up with the idea of stickers that said, in essence, "Excuse my attire, I'm doing Cool Biz."
A Cool Transition
And it worked. Air conditioners were turned up to higher temperatures in all government buildings, saving electricity. As a result, half a million tons of CO2 that would have normally been released into the atmosphere, was not.
And the second year — 2006 — Koike says the number of companies and numbers of businessmen who participated in the Cool Biz initiative expanded enormously. The participation numbers doubled or tripled, cutting about 1.4 million tons of CO2 emissions.
"That is equivalent to half of the Tokyo area's CO2 emissions of a month," Kioke says.
But the most surprising part of this is that the suggested temperature for air conditioners as part of the campaign was 28 degrees Celsius, or about 82 degrees Fahrenheit — that's seven degrees warmer than what you might find in a typical U.S. office building.
And for government buildings in Japan, the 82-degree setting is mandatory.
On a visit this summer to the Environment Ministry, the building was warm and humid — workers have that shiny, post-perspiration look. But they also said it wasn't so bad. They got used to the heat and they felt good about doing something to help address climate change — except when it occasionally got hotter.
On one floor, the area next to the elevators recorded at 31.2 degrees Celsius, or 88 degree Fahrenheit.
Temperatures were high in some offices, too.
Masashi Komurasaki carried around a small cloth to mop his brow.
"There are lots of printers and PCs and lots of machines," Komurasaki says. "Because of that, it's very, very hot and humid. Also after 8 p.m., air conditioners totally stop, so it's a kind of hell."
It's kind of hell?
"It's a kind of hell," Komurasaki laughs. "Not kind of — it's hell!"
You wonder how something like this would go over in the United States. When President Carter got on television in the 1970s and urged people to conserve by wearing a sweater in winter, people laughed.
It's tempting to chalk Japan's success up to cultural differences and a greater willingness to make individual sacrifice for a larger good. But Japan had its own Carter moment. A prime minister once tried to push the idea of men's suits that had short sleeves. People thought it looked ridiculous.
Cool Biz was a well-executed plan: It was propagated by peer pressure and common sense. Why wear a suit and tie in the summer? Some women cheered the end of arctic office temperatures.
Japan's powerful business association, Keidanren, which represents about 1,300 major companies, says 70 percent of its companies now keep the air conditioners set to 28 degrees Celsius, or 82 degrees Fahrenheit.
And some retailers see Cool Biz as a chance to make money. The barber's association in Japan is promoting a Cool Biz hair cut, styled in the shape of a Mohawk. There's also a new market for Cool Biz clothes.
The Aoyama clothing store in Tokyo's Ikebukuro neighborhood advertises global warming suits for men.
Store manager Masanobu Miyagi says the best suit to have to stay cool is the "Su su suit" — or the one-pound suit, so light you barely know you're wearing it.
The company has sold 400,000 Cool Biz suits, which cost about $500 each.
The store also carries global warming underwear.
"Once you wear these, you won't wear others boxers," Miyagi says.
But something is a little funny. The store is suspiciously cool.
"I think this place is set a bit cooler than 28 degrees (82 degrees Fahrenheit)," Miyagi explains. "Well, I think if it's hotter, the people cannot concentrate on choosing the suits. Here is a place for them to choose their uniform to work. Better to set a little cooler."
And the truth is that cutting back on air conditioning alone is not going to stop climate change.
Koike, the former environment minister, says she intended Cool Biz to be a wake-up call. Japan has pledged under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 6 percent below 1990 levels. Instead, emissions have grown 8 percent. The Cool Biz savings amount to 0.1 percent.
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