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Friday, 4 December 2009

Things change. What can seem an advantage one day turns out, the next, to be a liability. This is certainly the case in terms of high-speed rail technology, an area being targeted by the US government. But with the country so long enjoying cheap oil, it seems that underlying technologies required to build a HSR network can be sourced from overseas only.

Even China, usually seen as the recipient of advanced technologies developed elsewhere, is now talking with US companies about tech transfers.

This seems to be the plan for at least one U.S. company. According to Greenwire, General Electric Co.'s transportation division, GE Transportation, recently announced a new high-speed partnership with China's Ministry of Railways in an effort to "catch up to the rest of the high-speed world." The plan would help GE gain technical competency in high-speed rail technology while giving China a foothold in the U.S. market.

It's likely that those technologies originated in Japan or Europe. Japanese companies have won Chinese contracts to build HSR lines and stock them with cars, and German company Siemens is a major player in China's underground rail system.

Korean companies will undoubtedly have begun their HSR tech development efforts on the back of imported Japanese designs.

Why has Japan got such a lead in green technology? Because for so long it had to import all its oil. There are no oil fields in Japan or in its domestic waters, so all supplies came by sea, mainly from the Gulf states.

As a result of this need to constantly battle high energy costs, Japan has emerged as a major player in green technology.

And advances in anti-pollution technology that were legislated into use by the government following several high-profile cases of toxic poisoning, such as Minamata's mercury poisoning scandal, combined with energy-consciousness to propel Japan to the forefront of green tech over a period of a few decades.

When I worked there, in fact, we were constantly writing stories for the company's internal magazine that highlighted green credentials of clients.

We even coined a term - 'Enviramation' - and designed a new brochure displaying all of the company's green-tech installations in vivid colour, accompanied by short stories with details of how environmental savings had been made in Japan and overseas. The project fell through - this was in 1996 or so, before eco-tech became a matter for headlines - but the point had been made.

I'm sure the company continues to use its green credentials to get contracts. I haven't worked there for many years and there has been a lot of organisational change in the meantime.

But one thing is certain: Japan's green legacy was built on adversity.

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