Japanese local and regional governments move first on Paris Agreement

The new Japanese Minister of Environment, Shinjirō Koizumi, attended his first climate Conference of the Parties this year, and he brought with him both good and bad news.

Local and regional governments in Japan have been stepping forward to make ambitious commitments to zero carbon, as of COP25, 28 local governments had announced their plans to align with the Paris Agreement goal. These cities and regions that have committed include some of the largest, such as Tokyo, Kanagawa, Osaka and Nagano, as well as iconic cities like Kyoto and Yokohama. That means that carbon neutral policies now apply to a population of 45 million people, or about 35% of the country’s total population.

“We are ready to take bold steps. Tokyo is not just a big city in Japan. We’re one of the great mega-cities in the world, and we realize we have a responsibility to make this commitment,” said Toshiko Chiba, Tokyo’s Deputy Director for Carbon Policy Planning Section in the Bureau of Environment.

Deputy Director Chiba was hopeful that the commitment of local and regional governments will inspire the national government to come along. “In Japan, environmental policy has often started at the local level, and then the national government followed. For example, for policies combatting air pollution, local governments moved first, and we were successful in getting the national government to act on that.”

At the same time as representatives from these cities and regions were presenting their commitments at COP, Minister Koizumi also had to relate his own Ministry’s failure to unite his government behind a broader promise of decreasing carbon emissions.

At a press conference on December 12, he said, “Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for stopping our addiction to coal. I took this as a message to Japan. We can’t make an announcement of phasing out coal or fossil fuels right away but will keep considering options going forward. So please keep eye on what we do in the future.”

Local and regional governments will be looking for leadership from the national government to create the enabling conditions or frameworks that will allow them to meet their 2050 carbon neutrality goals. Part of the Ministry of Environment’s work will be to convince other Ministries that control investment in Japan’s booming coal industry – such as the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry – that the business case is there to move away from coal.

“As more and more local and regional governments make these commitments in Japan, we know the message is going to get to the national level.  It will become clear that, sooner or later, they will have to invest on this,” said Togo Uchida, Executive Director of ICLEI Japan. “A GDP of $2 trillion will be affected by these commitments, and we will need leadership from the top to ensure a successful transition.”

Japanese cities are already taking some of the enabling conditions into their own hands. One successful example is Tokyo’s urban cap-and-trade program for large facilities. This is the world’s first city-based mandatory CO2 reduction program, which was implemented by a Tokyo ordinance. Large-sized buildings within Tokyo must reduce their CO2 emissions every five years; if they cannot, then they can either buy a credit from other buildings that exceeded their goals, or buy renewable energy certificates. The market has even produced a way for credits to be donated, to make Japan’s capital city free of carbon dioxide emissions for the four days of opening and closing ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Minister Koizumi, in his High-Level Segment Statement delivered during COP25, praised the commitments made by the Japanese local governments and said, “We are fully committed and Japan will deliver.” The challenge now is how the Japanese government can show its commitment and deliver the leadership that local governments and the world needs.

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