Today's Wall St. Journal profiles Japan's efforts to reduce its reliance on imported oil over the years. It's a compelling story, and the accompanying figures show remarkable progress between 1975 and 2004, presumably the last year for which all the comparable data was available. The author concludes that, as a result of these changes, Japan is better positioned to weather the economic impact of sustained high oil prices than other countries. The only problem with this analysis is that by many of the same criteria, the US is in even better shape than Japan.
I wouldn't want to take anything away from what Japan has done to reduce its vulnerability to oil shocks, and to make its economy more energy-efficient. It reduced its oil imports by about 4% in the last 15 years, while US oil imports were growing by an average of 4% per year. This is all the more remarkable, considering that Japan produces less oil than Wyoming. In the process, Japan has achieved one of the lowest levels of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of economic output, though because of the size of its economy, it ranks 5th highest among emitting nations.
Two of the factors contributing to this excellent energy performance might not be worth emulating, however. First, the period of comparison coincides with the flattening of population growth in Japan, resulting in one of the world's most rapidly aging populations and all the economic worries that brings. It also overlaps with the protracted recession that followed the collapse of the "bubble economy." Over the same period, US economic growth was robust, while our population increased by nearly half.
Nor does the US look so bad, in energy terms. The Journal extols Japan's 40% improvement in energy use per GDP, compared with 1975, yet in the same interval, the US reduced its BTUs/$GDP(real) by 44%. And while Japan imports 82% of its total energy needs, with oil making up 46% of the total, the US is still 71% self-reliant in energy, with oil making up 40% of the mix, down from 45% in 1975. For all of our problems, I wouldn't trade our position for theirs.
All of these comparisons are superficial, because the US and Japan are very different countries, with important economic, social and historical distinctions. Rather than touting the energy improvements of one against the other, the more useful conclusion is that both of these large industrial economies--and most others, by extension--became a lot more efficient after the energy crisis of the 1970s and are thus in a better position to absorb high energy prices without falling into severe recession. That helps explain why the virtual doubling of oil prices this year hasn't been catastrophic for the world economy, thus far. The longer oil prices remain high, the more these countries will invest in efficiency, making them even less vulnerable in the future, with accompanying benefits for the fight against climate change. Japan isn't alone in knowing how to do this.
I'd like to wish my US readers an enjoyable Thanksgiving. Postings will resume on Monday, November 26th.