In October 2020, the Japanese government announced the country’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2050, with a target of decreasing its CO2 emissions by 46% by 2030.
Taking pledges beyond words to real action, however, requires the engagement of the country’s vast population of over 120 million people. Fortunately, local governments are already playing a role in fostering change and organizing on the ground.
One excellent example is the 1,700-plus local governments participating in a vaccine rollout, which reached a peak nationwide of administering 1.5 million vaccine doses a day, and achieved vaccination of three quarters of the population in the best part of seven months.
When it comes to decarbonization and other COP26 goals, Japan’s Ministry of Environment is supporting local governments in the ecological transition and outreach.
In fact, it turns out that even before the central government declared its net zero aim by 2050, 160 municipalities had independently issued carbon neutral pledges. The number has now gone up to 460, which corresponds to a population of 100 million people.
In addition, Japan is sharing good practice abroad, with 17 cities in Japan helping 43 cities in other countries.
Considering the key role of local action, JAPAN Forward caught up with Ryuzo Sugimoto, director of the International Cooperation and Sustainable Infrastructure office at Japan’s Ministry of Environment, to learn more about these efforts in Japan and with neighbors in Asia.
Doing it Locally - With National Support
What is the rationale in supporting efforts from the ground up?
In order to achieve the zero-carbon objective, cities are hugely important.
Our stance is that we are all aiming for the top of the mountain. The only question is the path we pick to climb. It might differ slightly from person to person. In the same way, from country to country and from region to region, the method might change, but we can still protect that diversity while aiming for the same target.
In Japan, the circumstances among cities differ massively, so if you look at Tokyo or Yokohama compared to small cities, zero-carbon targets are approached in different ways.
In the plan that we [the national government] announced in October 2020, we talked about what happens by sector and industry, or “vertical integration.”
But in aiming for carbon neutrality, it’s quite difficult to make progress just in terms of one sector.
We can attack it from various levels on a regional level, and on the ground, or dealing with companies. From the local perspective, other approaches might be born.
We can have attempts to make an urban area into a walkable city or a compact city. In Europe, there are many cities that are centered around a castle, and they collect in the center. In Japan, cities sprawl. But we need to think of how to make an urban area compact, so that you don’t need to buy a car.
We recognize the diversity of cities, and so rather than doing things centrally, we trust that people on the ground are trying hard and doing their job. And the country tries to support that. This movement [bottom up], in some ways pushed forward the national policy, and we think that Japan is creating a good precedent that way.
There can be collaborations on the city level that move faster than they can at the national level.
What are some of the concrete ideas that Japan is implementing?
In practice we want to make more than 100 areas carbon neutral by 2030. And we’re trying to get there by going through a selection process and sharing examples of prior good practices, such as those in Nagano prefecture, Kitakyushu, and so on.
Because the first five years are key, during this time, the national government provides intensive support on three fronts: human resources, goods, and money.
Human resources are important. While money is always important, the issue on the ground is often the need for skilled staff, as local areas will often not have the people and the know-how to implement the initiatives. You need people with experience. Sharing is also important, and that can mean the materials as well as the technology.
What are some examples of sister city relationships?
There are 17 cities in Japan that have sister relations with 43 cities abroad.
One example is Kawasaki, which has a relationship with Jakarta, Indonesia. The Indonesian city is quite large, and has said it wants to introduce a hydrogen project, EV (electric vehicle) buses, and renewable energy in factories.
Another example is the city of Hai Phong in Vietnam [paired with Kitakyushu in Japan]. It’s an industrial city, so it’s difficult to switch immediately to a carbon zero structure. It's very different from a residential area, but there have been a variety of initiatives.
How are these cities selected?
Since the Kyoto Protocol (1997), and especially since 2013, Japan has been developing a carbon marketing mechanism, the Joint Crediting Mechanism (JCM), which now covers 17 countries.
Other countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and countries like Malaysia are currently discussing whether to join. Maldives, Chile and even Palau are part of the scheme.
It is within this framework that there are city relationships created between Japan and other countries.
On Progress in Renewable Energy
What is the strongest argument for investing in renewable energy?
There is often the idea that introducing renewable energy can be expensive. Yet, [now] energy is often imported from abroad, so the money already goes elsewhere.
Even calculating the cost of renewable energy at home, at least it’s domestic, and that way it also becomes an investment in Japan.
We want to create this cycle. In order to achieve that, fostering local renewable energy becomes very important, as the local government can help.
Could you explain what other projects are happening to foster the use of renewable energy?
There are also relations among localities. Yokohama [a large city near Tokyo] can't produce enough renewable energy locally, and thereby they communicate and share with Tohoku, in northeastern Japan. If two localities are connected, by cooperating on investing in renewable energy it becomes completely possible to secure it.
By creating a structure for producing electricity through renewable energy, we can provide light and power for charging batteries and phones in a type of disaster. That helps disaster management, and that is something we do very well in Japan.
Finally, there is something we call “multi benefit.” On top of the initial benefits that there might be from the local government level, there are also other initiatives, such as EV sharing schemes.
If you try to finance renewable energy but there is no business incentive, then people will not invest in it. But if you introduce something which is easy to use, there might be wider benefits. In the case of EV sharing, cars charge while in the shared parking, and the batteries are convenient as they can be used for electricity in case of a disaster.
With these methods, we can convince people that they did well to adopt eco-friendly methods. Successful models can be exported abroad as well. All countries are different and you might not do things exactly the same, but the knowhow is hugely important.
Thanks to these various examples on the ground, and creating 100 regions that are carbon neutral I think we can mitigate different concerns and prove that it can work.
By starting to introduce projects, we figure out what needs to change, what to finance, and then create the framework to speed up the process going forward.
Japan is quite good at being practical. Ambitions are important, but the practical implementation on the ground is just as important. The municipalities can lead, and the central government can follow.
Japan’s Plans on Coal and Nuclear
Japan often gets asked about its coal consumption for energy production. What is the stance of the Ministry of Environment?
Our basic approach is to move away from coal technology. But in the meantime as we do so, the idea is to make use of different types of technology.
The former Minister of Environment Shinjiro Koizumi used to say that the absolute priority should be the transition to renewable energy. And in that sense, I don’t think there is any change in the policy.
We are doing many things on the ground, but then there is one comment on coal and the media focuses on that. It nullifies everything else.
Since Koizumi, the national policy has changed. We have moved away from coal, and we announced we will become carbon neutral.
However, there is room to debate on various approaches. If, for example, we want to talk about decarbonization, and about using hydrogen plants in the short turn, that is something which we can discuss.
What about the debate on nuclear energy?
Regarding nuclear, the government’s aim is to decrease it eventually, and I don’t think there is any change in that.
In the future, there might be smaller reactors for nuclear energy that are sustainable. But we need to focus on the technology which is available now to become carbon neutral. Because we will not make it by 2030 if we have to develop new technology and have it ready for use.
We need to go in the directions which we can right now, so that we can hope to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Bringing Along Neighbors in the Transition
There is a lot of talk about pledging help to developing countries in the ecological transition, including by the United States. What can you say about that?
I think there is an aspect of culture in Asia where we don’t promise things that we can’t achieve. It’s not a matter of aiming high, and somehow going in that direction, but rather doing more than what you are saying you would. In that sense, I think there is a gap [between the West and the East].
The debate is moving beyond the Paris Agreement to seeing what can be achieved, and working out a scenario to make that a reality.
In Japan we set the aim to decrease C02 by 46 percent by 2030, and that is not an easily achievable level. Rather, it’s a fifty-fifty chance that we can achieve that. Therefore, we need to look for business opportunities, and create a timeline.
What are some of the other things that Japan is doing in Asia to facilitate the ecological transition?
In October 2021, we published the ASEAN State of Climate Change Report. In that, we summarize three main policies going forward.
The first is transparency. We support creating a reporting system.
For that, we can provide satellite technology, so that it’s easy to understand the status of CO2 emissions. If you do that then you can understand what the problems are with that particular country. After all, if you don’t have a scale you can’t go on a diet. In the same way, you can’t figure out what works and what doesn’t, you can’t make an inventory.
The second point is mitigation. There are many countries who already have formulated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), but many in the ASEAN region still have not.
We want to support their doing so, to figure out what is necessary in order to become carbon neutral by 2050. Investment is something which needs to be planned, and if it’s not decided now, then the window of opportunity will close. In other words, planning is key.
[Under mitigation] we also look at how, apart from energy, we can share best practices in other sectors of society, and accelerate the relations between cities.
The third point is adaptation. We want to create a platform, and address climate risk, and reduce it as much as possible, while supporting other countries' disaster risk management.
What is a message you want to send to people abroad about Japan’s efforts?
We are doing practical decarbonization. We are thinking of how we can support cities, and we are thinking of various approaches not just for Japan, but that can work in Asia.
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Interview by: Arielle Busetto