Japan chems step up in green innovation

Green idol

21 October 2008 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Japan is considered a model of environmental stewardship, but is its chemical industry up to par?

LESSONS learned more than 40 years ago from a series of environmental disasters have transformed Japan from a polluted industrial society into a global environmental leader and an energy-saving superpower. The country is now known for its recycling efficiency, energy-efficient high-tech gadgets and low-emission fuel-efficient cars.

Japan's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are said to be the lowest of all major industrialized countries in the world, according to Carin Holroyd, senior research associate at Canada-based research think-tank Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).

CIGI released a technical report in March called Green Japan: Managing the Intersection of National Politics and Global Environmentalism. In it, Holroyd wrote: "Japan has been successful in moving toward a sustainable environment through a combination of national governmental leadership and a commitment to public engagement. Academic, government and commercial research scientists have all been mobilized to develop solutions to environmental challenges."

But some Japanese green groups are questioning the green credentials of the country's industrial sector, especially its emissions reduction, and the sustainability of its products and processing techniques.

Japanese environmental group Kiko Network released a greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions report in May, which revealed that the country's industrial emissions in 2006 accounted for the largest share, at 36%, of Japan's total emissions of 1.3bn tons (1.2bn tonnes) of CO2 equivalent.

"A high proportion of Japan's total GHG emissions came from a limited number of large facilities, especially coming from the energy sector," the group said. "Emissions from the steel and the chemical sectors also turned out to be enormous, accounting for 15% and 6% of Japan's total emissions, respectively."

In the manufacturing sector, steel, chemicals, petroleum products, cement, and pulp and paper industries account for 80% of indirect GHG emissions, according to Kiko Network.

The group noted that Japan's mandatory GHG accounting, reporting and disclosure system mostly uses indirect emissions data, which are calculated by allocating emissions associated with the generated electricity to the final consumption sectors such as factories, offices and households.

The chemical industry accounts for about 17% of the total emissions of CO2 from Japan's industrial sector, according to the Japan Chemical Industry Association (JCIA).

co2 reduction

The association notes that under a voluntary action plan on the environment, initiated since 1997 by the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), the chemical industry reduced CO2 emissions by 15%, or the equivalent of 13.5m tons of CO2 in 2006, compared with 1990, even though total production rose by 30% in that time.

Most of the GHG reduction initiatives from chemical industry associations in Japan cover energy conservation. The JCIA's Japan Responsible Care Council says that the chemical industry's total investment in energy conservation such as new energy-efficient facilities, upgrading of existing facilities and exhaust heat recovery, amounted to yen (Y) 344bn ($3.2bn) from 1997-2006.

"The key to a strategy for preventing global warming is thorough energy conservation in the short term, and large-scale expansion in the use of renewable energy sources in the long term," says the JCIA. "Increasing use of renewable energy, however, will require the introduction of technological innovations in order to produce significant reductions in the costs of these forms of energy."

Several companies say they have made efforts to reduce GHG emissions, not only through energy efficiency but by using new environment-friendly processes as well.

Japanese chemical giant Sumitomo Chemical cites new green processes such as its vapor-phase caprolactam (capro) process, which eliminates ammonium sulfate by-product and reduces the amount of required feedstock and its propylene oxide (PO)-only process, which eliminates by-products and does not generate chlorinated waste.

Hisashi Shimoda, executive officer and general manager of corporate communications at Sumitomo, adds that its hydrochloric acid oxidation process enables the recovery and recycling of chlorine in chemical manufacturing, such as in the production of isocyanates, vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), epichlorohydrin and other chemicals where chlorine is a raw material and hydrochloric acid a by-product.

"In the development of organic synthesis processes, some of our specific green chemistry targets include eliminating solvents from reactions, using safer solvents and other raw materials, utilizing materials that can be reclaimed or reused, and reducing all emissions and solid wastes into the atmosphere or waterways," says Shimoda.

Japanese chemical giant Asahi Kasei has adopted the 12 principles of green chemistry, formulated by Paul Anastas and John Warner, as a guide for the concept of green and sustainable chemistry.

Makoto Yamazaki, general manager of corporate communications at Asahi Kasei, says: "One example is our polycarbonate [PC] production process, which eliminates phosgene as reactant and methylene chloride as solvent." The 12 principles, introduced in 1998, cover concepts such as the design of safer chemicals, the design of processes that are energy-efficient and minimize waste and feedstock use, recyclability or biodegradability of chemicals, and pollution prevention.

Both Asahi Kasei's and Sumitomo's green process innovations were recognized by the Green & Sustainable Chemistry Network, a Japanese organization formed in 1999, consisting of representatives from chemical manufacturers and researchers.

greener pastureS

The JCIA also points out how the chemical industry's technologies have made a large contribution to preventing global warming.

Solar panels, fuel cells, plastics for automobiles, energy-efficient liquid crystal displays, carbon fibers, friction-resistant tires, and high-performance insulation materials are some of the products that the JCIA points to as helping to save energy.

"In the past, the Japanese chemical industry has developed superior technology as part of its battle to overcome pollution threats faced during Japan's period of high economic growth," says the JCIA. "Now the industry has set itself the new challenge of developing innovative technology to prevent global warming."

Recent developments, according to the JCIA, include a caustic soda process that could cut CO2 emissions by 2m tons/year if fully developed and used in all plants in Japan and an experiment called chemical complex renaissance, where an entire region around chemical complexes collaborates in using energy efficiently.

Both Mitsubishi Chemical and Mitsui Chemicals are now exploring ways to capture and recycle CO2 emitted from factories.

At Mitsubishi Chemical's midterm management plan meeting on May 13, the company decided to establish a new research center, tentatively called Institute of Kaiteki Biosphere, that will study, among others, how to use CO2 as a carbon feedstock.

"Our efforts to reduce CO2 emissions are not limited to emissions from our own activities," says Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, president of Mitsubishi Chemical. "Artificial photosynthesis is the ultimate human dream. Over the long term, we should like to take up the challenge of developing the technology to use CO2 as a carbon source, something that most likely can be done by a chemical company."

In August, Mitsui Chemicals announced its plan to build a Y1.5bn, 100 ton/year pilot plant in Osaka, which will use a methanol synthesis process using expended and captured CO2 from factories. The pilot plant is expected to be completed in February 2009, and to be put into use in March 2010.

"Mitsui Chemicals' chemical CO2 immobilization project, if industrialized, will cut CO2 generation significantly in the future," the company says. "In addition, this technology will enable the company to use numerous resources as alternatives to oil."


Nonprofit group Japan for Sustainability views the country's green manufacturing performance

Japan might be considered one of the greenest countries in the industrialized world (if not the entire world), but non-profit group Japan for Sustainability (JFS) thinks there is still room for improvement, especially in the country's manufacturing and energy sectors.

JFS cofounder and cochief executive Junko Edahiro says the voluntary action plan initiated by Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) in 1997 has not really been effective in lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Under the Keidanren plan, 35 industry sectors, among them the chemical industry, are expected to lower their GHG emissions below the 1990 level of 512m tons (464m tonnes) of CO2 equivalent. In Keidanren's 2007 report, overall CO2 emissions in 2006 were given as 0.2% lower than a year earlier, and 1.5% lower compared with 1990.

"There hasn't been a lot of progress so far, especially coming from two of the largest GHG emitters in Japan, the iron and steel industry, and the electric power industry," says Edahiro.

Each industry has its own target levels, and Edahiro notes the difficulty faced by industry outsiders in assessing their reporting accuracy.

"The industrial sector, the chemical industry in particular, has a hard time communicating with the public compared to electronics or automotive because they don't sell their end products to consumers. How they can police themselves and show what they're doing to the general public is a big barrier," she says.

The Keidanren voluntary plan is also not keeping up with Japan's own 6% GHG emission-reduction goal, which was implemented with the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in February 2005, Edahiro adds.

"Although the industrial sector is trying to do something about global warming, the Keidanren plan is not sufficient enough to be at the same level with the national goal," says Edahiro. "Industries in general have to come up with new business models where sustainability has to go hand-in-hand with profitability."

Edahiro admits that Japan's industrial sector is ahead of other countries when it comes to energy efficiency and waste disposal.

"But if Japan's long-term goal of a low-carbon society has to be achieved, the government needs to exert stronger leadership in order to regulate GHG emissions," she adds.

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By: Doris de Guzman
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