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Ambitious Zero Emission Tokyo plan wins praise, but begs for action

  • January 26, 2020
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press

By Ryusei Takahashi, Staff Writer


Just days before the new year, Gov. Yuriko Koike revealed the Zero Emission Tokyo Strategy, the capital’s long-awaited plan to eliminate carbon emissions, transition to renewable energy and take the lead in the fight against global warming.


“Around the world, we see that cities are taking the lead in the fight against climate change. …Whether it’s at the national level or through municipalities, we need to take action or it will be too late,” Koike said at a news conference earlier this month. “As a huge contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, Tokyo needs to do what it can to set the standard for the rest of the world.”


Experts praised the metropolitan government for using decisive language, taking the initiative to address its comparatively large contribution to global warming, and aligning itself with the 2015 Paris agreement, but they questioned the plan’s flexibility amid the escalating climate crisis and wondered whether the city plans to engage residents at the community level or negotiate with big corporations as in the past.


Can Tokyo make good on its lofty promises? Will it inspire Japanese to make lifestyle changes? And, most importantly, will the capital’s ambitious strategy embolden the rest of Japan to formulate a nationwide strategy?


The Zero Emission Tokyo Strategy details a multifaceted effort to heighten disaster preparedness, reduce single-use plastics, transition to renewable energy and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.


It also reveals the governor’s ambitious vision of what Tokyo might look like in 30 years: zero-emission cars, buses, boats and planes; buildings made of recycled wood and topped with solar panels; power plants on the city’s perimeter tapping biomass, geothermal, hydrogen, hydroelectric, solar and wind energy; grocery stores with zero food waste and no single-use plastics; and “smart” homes with artificial intelligence to minimize energy consumption.


The Tokyo Metropolitan Government plans to spend more than ¥74.6 billion to achieve net-zero carbon emissions, according to a 2020 budget plan it released Friday.


The money will mostly be distributed to the individual plans announced alongside the broader Tokyo Climate Change Adaptation Policy, Plastic Strategy and ZEV (Zero Emission Vehicle) Promotion Strategy — which outline additional steps the city will take to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions, marine plastic waste, food waste and fluorocarbon emissions.


Altogether, the strategy comprises 14 objectives across six areas that include the energy sector, buildings, transportation, resources, climate change adaptation and engagement.


Riyanti Djalante, an academic program officer at the United Nations University Institute of the Advanced Study of Sustainability, said the energy and urban infrastructure sectors are key to the plan’s success.


“This is about the need for rapid and transformational action,” Djalante said, adding that the metropolitan government has taken a “very proactive approach” by consulting scientists and businesses but that nongovernmental organizations and people in the community need to be more involved.


“What’s important now is how fast and in which sectors (the city) wants to implement this zero-emission strategy,” she said.


Tokyo says it will track its own progress through midterm goals. By 2030, it hopes to install 1,000 charging stations for electric vehicles, enough solar power equipment to provide 1.3 gigawatts of power (roughly the amount used by a million households in a year), reduce single-use plastics by 25 percent, and slash food waste 50 percent compared with 2000.


To achieve decarbonization, the capital plans to expand the use of hydrogen energy as it weans itself off fossil fuels. The governor called on residents to be compassionate and work together to confront the climate crisis, and urged the central government to formulate a national strategy to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.


In recent years, hundreds of lives have been lost and many more homes destroyed by extreme weather. In 2018, floods in western Japan caused by torrential rain caused more than ¥1.1 trillion in damage. Temperatures last summer topped 40 in Tokyo for the first time on record, hospitalizing many people, particularly seniors, for heat-related illnesses. Typhoons tore through the country in September and October, bringing strong winds and record-breaking rain that led to flooding in several parts of the nation.


Recognizing that the frequency and severity of natural disasters is being exacerbated by climate change, Tokyo is taking a two-pronged approach — mitigation and adaptation — to minimize or eliminate their devastating impact.


The capital accounts for nearly 20 percent of Japan’s gross domestic product and by itself would rank among the world’s top 20 nations in economic output.


Takayoshi Yokoyama of 350 Japan, the local branch of a global environmental group, praised Tokyo for creating midterm goals to gauge progress, clearly stating its intent to achieve decarbonization, and taking a multifaceted approach to a complex issue.


But he also said the plan lacks flexibility and doesn’t have a mechanism that would allow it to adjust to the worsening conditions of climate change he expects in the near future.


“For a city like that to make a commitment like this is very significant,” he said. “However, it’s necessary for the residents of Tokyo to change their lifestyles, and this plan doesn’t make that message clear enough.”


In September, 7.6 million people gathered in 185 countries to take part in a global climate strike and demand action against the crisis. Nearly 5,000 took part in Japan, with just over half marching in Tokyo.


Fridays for Future Tokyo, the local chapter of an international climate group created by 17-year-old activist Greta Thunberg, had been urging Tokyo to make a Climate Emergency Declaration, a nonbinding pledge to take action at the scale and speed needed to reduce carbon emissions, pursue renewable resources and do everything within its power to address climate change.


FFF Tokyo members submitted a petition with more than 4,000 signatures urging the city to make the declaration and join a growing legion of more than 265 million people across more than a thousand municipalities in 20 countries.


Instead, Tokyo in December made what it calls a “declaration of climate crisis mobilization,” which Koike said “surpasses a Climate Emergency Declaration.”


“I think she did that out of pride,” Yokoyama said, chuckling. What remains to be seen, he said, is whether the city will follow through on its big promises and convince the rest of Japan to follow suit.


“It’s important for cities to take action but it’s meaningless if it doesn’t lead to a response at the national level,” Yokoyama said. “For the plan to succeed, Japan must take action.”


During a speech at the C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen in October, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that cities, which account for more than 70 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, are “where the climate battle will be largely won or lost,” and called on countries to submit new and improved climate action plans by 2020.


Japan has long been the subject of criticism for its dedication to fossil fuels. The latest wave of scrutiny came after Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi delivered a speech at the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP25) in which he defended Japan and said criticism of its coal policy was overshadowing the progress it has made.


At the same conference, an environmental group gave the “Fossil of the Day” award to Japan and two other countries for their continued use of coal and other fossil fuels. Days later, a report from a group of more than 30 NGOs revealed that the three largest banks in Japan — Mizuho Financial Group, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group — are also the world’s three largest financiers of coal plants and had accounted for 32 percent of direct lending to coal plant developers since January 2017.


Upon his return, Koizumi insisted that the conference had yielded positive results. Japan did, in fact, receive praise from numerous countries for acting as a bridge builder, especially during the intense debate surrounding the rules on countries using an international market system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions under Article 6 of the Paris agreement. This emissions trading debate is said to have stymied a final agreement at COP25.


Despite improving diplomatic relations, Koizumi made no mention at the conference of a plan to eliminate coal plants.


“At this time, realistically speaking, it’s impossible for Japan to stop using fossil fuels,” he said during a news conference in December held immediately after he got back from the conference. “The same goes for coal.”


COP25 was the last chance for countries to finalize the rules of the Paris agreement before it took effect this year. Leading up to the next conference, which is to be held in November in Glasgow, Scotland, each nation has been asked to prepare a comprehensive plan to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.


While Japan has yet to do so, experts hope Tokyo’s strategy will provide some tips and inspiration.

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