Japanese cities take a circular approach to energy and decarbonization

Local and regional governments are not waiting for their national governments to take climate action. In Japan, local governments have been stepping forward to make ambitious commitments to zero carbon by 2050. For example, Tokyo has declared a “Climate Crisis Mobilization” as their commitment to respond to the climate emergency and through its Zero Emission Tokyo Strategy, the city is taking a clear stance that it will become Zero Carbon by 2050. Tokyo is one of 56 local governments representing almost 40 percent of the population with a GDP of 2.3 trillion USD that have committed to carbon neutrality by 2050.

Through these initiatives, we see a growing number of local governments adopting a circular approach to energy and decarbonization. The concept of Regional and Circular Ecological Sphere or Circular Ecological Economy, introduced and adopted by the Government of Japan in 2018, provides a framework for cities and regions in the country to explore integrated development approaches towards decarbonization and localization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Cities are consuming two thirds of the world’s energy, while contributing to over 70 percent of the global GHGs emissions. “We need to fundamentally change our production and consumption pattern, from linear to circular economy, from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and from overexploitation to nature-based solutions” says Ashok Sridharan, Mayor of Bonn and President of ICLEI.

Bonn city has recently adopted its comprehensive sustainability strategy, which covers all areas of the municipality’s actions in urban mobility, climate and energy, social participation, and the use of natural resources. Mayor Sridharan believes that local governments are key when it comes to actively promoting and implementing new patterns of production and consumption.

Minna Arve, Mayor of the Finnish city Turku — an active member of ICLEI’s Green Circular Cities Coalition — shared the city’s ambition to achieve carbon neutrality by 2029, a resource-wise city by 2040, and climate positive with negative net emissions thereafter.

These ambitious goals are supported by deep decarbonization measures, carbon sinks and a strong commitment to circular economy practices at the regional level. In particular, Turku’s target was made possible by such ambitious projects as a wastewater treatment and purification plant which provides 14 municipalities with 10 percent of their overall heating and cooling requirements.

A joint study recently conducted by Turku and the Finland Future Research Centre has identified the main actors – including over 300 businesses – in accelerating decarbonization measures and the development of circular economy initiatives in the surrounding region. Turku city government and ICLEI are currently working on solutions to engage more regional stakeholders and are connecting with Japanese cities as they develop their plans for regional circularity. In January 2020, a delegation from Turku visited the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama to exchange experiences on circular economy as the Finnish and Japanese cities both work towards the goal of decarbonization.

Japan steps up regional collaboration on energy

Energy contributes to a significant amount of GHG emissions in cities, yet it is challenging to cover all energy consumption by local renewables especially in extremely densely populated urban areas. For instance, Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan, is only able to generate an estimated ten percent of its energy consumption within the territory.

Thus, to make the impossible possible, Yokohama works closely with 12 municipalities which have high renewable energy potential in the Tohoku Region. Wind power generated in Aomori Prefecture is sold to companies and educational institutions in Yokohama, which has not only contributed significantly to the overarching goal of decarbonization, but has also contributed to local economic development in Aomori Prefecture.

Similar practices are being carried out in other regions in Japan. “To ensure sustainability, the priority is not only about reusing energy or increasing the production of renewable energy, but also benefiting the local people” said Soichiro Muroga, associate director of the sustainable energy policy division of the Nagano Prefecture Government’s Environmental Department.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster following the earthquake on 11 March, 2011 has made the Nagano Prefecture Government reconsider the urgency and necessity of making the region energy self-sufficient.

The prefecture has therefore developed a virtuous cycle by sustainably utilizing local natural resources and generating revenues to benefit local residents. For example, hydropower produced in Nagano Prefecture is being sold to schools in Tokyo, with the revenue generated re-invested in renewable energy activities in the prefecture. The practice realizes the circular and ecological economy—optimizing carbon and resource circulation at the most economically and socially efficient scale.

In addition, education programs, which include site visits to the hydropower station in Nagano Prefecture, have been provided to the students in Tokyo who are using the electricity produced. As Mr. Muroga said, “electricity has stimulated connections between the urban and rural area.”

By leveraging regional resources while mutually vitalizing the economy, local and regional governments in Japan have found collaboration with neighboring regions a sustainable and efficient way to deploy renewable energy. This circular approach to energy can not only help achieve carbon neutrality, but also stimulates connections between urban and rural areas.