Episode 4: Nagano Prefecture, Japan


Welcome to the Daring Cities podcast, where we talk to urban leaders around the world who are taking radical climate action to prepare for, adapt to and tackle the climate emergency. Today we visit Nagano Prefecture, part of a group of daring local governments across the country that have adopted zero-carbon goals. Now they are pushing the national government away from its addiction to coal. In Japan, change often comes from the bottom up.

Show notes

  • Host: Julia Scott
  • Produced by: ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability
  • Music credits: Ketsa, Chad Crouch

Episode 4: Nagano, Japan

Episode transcript

Julia Scott: [00:00:06] On this episode of Daring Cities, we visit Japan, where 153 local governments have committed to go zero carbon by 2050, which represents over half the national population. But with Japan still very much in the grips of the fossil fuel economy, it’s unclear how they’ll get there.

Togo Uchida: [00:00:25] Even though they understand that this goal may be quite challenging to achieve, and some of the plans that they have do actually have uncertainty in terms of whether if that could be achieved or not.

Julia Scott: [00:00:40] … And we’ll hear from a policy consultant who helped Nagano Prefecture become a model for green building and sustainable planning, with a perspective on how other jurisdictions can create similar momentum.

Shinishiro Tanaka: [00:00:52] In Japan, there’s a lot of people who value money more than they do life and the environment. So it’s very important to say to them that protecting lives and protecting the environment is actually good for the economy.

Julia Scott: [00:01:15] Welcome to the Daring Cities podcast, where we talk to urban leaders around the world who are taking radical climate action to prepare for, adapt to, and tackle the climate emergency. Cities are taking daring steps towards solving the climate crisis, and finding ways to navigate opposition — and support — from unexpected places as they go. I’m your host, Julia Scott.

Julia Scott: [00:01:39] Daring Cities is produced by ICLEI: Local Governments for Sustainability. It is a global network of more than 2,000 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development. We drive local action for low-emission, nature-based, equitable, resilient and circular urban development.

Julia Scott: [00:02:02] Shinichiro Tanaka is a professor at the Chiba University of Commerce east of Tokyo, and a longtime policy consultant on environmental and energy strategy to several local governments in Japan. He has a unique skill set that helps set cities on a path to zero carbon. In 2011, the governor of Nagano Prefecture personally asked for his help in launching renewable energy and green building initiatives in the Prefecture’s 34 cities. But when Mr. Tanaka started talking to policymakers, he quickly realized that they were speaking different languages.

Shinishiro Tanaka: [00:02:39] So even though the Governor himself had introduced this policy, the staff working at the Prefecture did not have the experience formulating these very ambitious plans as such. Moreover, they did not have a correct image of climate change and how these policies would actually strengthen the local economy. So at first it was difficult to transform the Governor’s ideas into action.

Julia Scott: [00:03:03] Nagano is a landlocked prefecture of some two million residents in central Japan, with an abundance of mountain ranges and natural scenic beauty. The capital, Nagano, is two hours west of Tokyo by bullet train. The mandate was to incorporate climate change and energy savings into regional policies, something few Japanese prefectures had in place. According to Mr. Tanaka, the career officials he talked to weren’t familiar with these goals and had never been empowered to care about these issues before.

Shinishiro Tanaka: [00:03:35] My approach was to carefully discuss and communicate with different departments and different organizations within the prefecture and explain to them, one by one, how these policies on climate change are actually good and would benefit the local economy as well.

Julia Scott: [00:03:57] Little by little, his campaign began to bear fruit.

Shinishiro Tanaka: [00:04:05] I began to receive supporters from the private companies in Nagano Prefecture, as well as staff that were working with the prefecture themselves. And then gradually those supporters came out with their original plans and ideas. And that actually helped to create the movement within the prefecture.

Julia Scott: [00:04:23] In Japan, it’s common for local municipalities to drive change from the bottom up. The growing number of cities and prefectures declaring zero carbon has added pressure to the central government to renew its nationally determined contributions, which is to say its climate ambitions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Julia Scott: [00:04:42] ICLEI’S Japan office has been the government’s leading partner to support the process of raising those ambitions and charting a roadmap for what could follow. Togo Uchida runs ICLEI’s Japan office. He says Japanese local governments are the daring ones for their commitment to this goal when so much uncertainty remains.

Togo Uchida: [00:05:02] Given the cultural background of Japan’s local governments, who are usually quite reluctant to promise something that they cannot promise in terms of promising that they could 100 percent pursue, now they are actually coming out and declaring zero carbon.

Julia Scott: [00:05:22] Mr. Uchida hears echoes of the past in how the climate movement has started to resonate with local governments. Japan’s growth-oriented economy after World War II drove pollution levels way up, and ultimately spurred citizen groups to form a movement.

Togo Uchida: [00:05:38] This raised a huge protest from people, and we have a history of that influencing the national government to change its own laws and regulations to be more strict towards the industrial activities that happen locally.

Julia Scott: [00:05:58] Part of the reason that local governments are pushing for change is the recent surge in climate-related natural disasters. In 2018, weeks of heavy rain in western Japan caused more than one trillion yen in damage, or more than nine billion U.S. dollars. Temperatures last summer soared past 90 degrees, putting many vulnerable people in the hospital. The next year, typhoons tore across Japan with winds, rain and historic flooding. The increasing scale and frequency of crises in Japan have started to create an awakening, says Mr. Uchida.

Togo Uchida: [00:06:34] And I think one of the challenges that we had in terms of climate change was that, unfortunately, it was not really considered as a local issue, but rather it was considered as a global issue. But when we are seeing a lot of natural disasters happening every year, people are now considering this as a local issue. And I think that is what we are seeing as a phenomenon in Japan at the moment.

Julia Scott: [00:07:06] Back in Nagano Prefecture, officials created a rule that every new home now needed an energy efficiency plan. The result is that over 80 percent of newly built homes are now considered energy saving, which is double the national average, according to Mr. Tanaka.

Shinishiro Tanaka: [00:07:23] This had an effect to raise the technology and capacity of the local builders, the local companies, and so that it opened up new business possibilities for these companies.

Julia Scott: [00:07:35] Nagano now has several small scale hydropower and solar power plants in motion. Hydropower produced in Nagano Prefecture is being sold to schools in Tokyo, and the revenue comes back for local renewable energy projects. A solar mapping project will determine the energy potential of installing solar panels on top of large buildings across all 34 cities. Finally, the prefectural assembly is looking at a comprehensive sustainability plan that includes sections on plastic waste and biodiversity.

Shinishiro Tanaka: [00:08:16] Now, almost every staff member within Nagano Prefecture is convinced that energy saving policies will contribute directly to raising the local economy as well.

Julia Scott: [00:08:24] That message extends beyond just the Nagano region. Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan, has forged relationships with 12 other municipalities who use renewable energy in the Tohuku region, the northern part of Japan’s main island. For instance, wind power from Aomori Prefecture is sold to companies and schools in Yokohama, 800 kilometres away. It’s contributed significantly to Yokohama’s decarbonisation goals, and improved economic development in Aomori Prefecture. But such relationships are still in the vanguard.

Shinishiro Tanaka: [00:09:07] Although a lot of local governments have declared net zero carbon by 2050… I believe you could narrow down the numbers to maybe 10 or so local governments in Japan who have a real, effective policy with very concrete plans.

Julia Scott: [00:09:26] Part of the problem becomes clear when you look at the overall energy pie for Japan. Most C02 emissions come from heat and electricity, followed by industry and transport. But when you zoom in, the picture changes.

Julia Scott: [00:09:39] In Tokyo, for instance, transportation and building emissions make up a bigger slice of the pie. So there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The other issue, and this is a big one, is that Japan still relies heavily on coal fired power plants to feed its national grid. And it’s almost impossible for large and mid-sized cities to disconnect from that grid to pursue their own energy mix, says Mr. Uchida.

Togo Uchida: [00:10:05] The local governments heavily rely on the national grid and the energy plan that our national government have. So one of the requests that the local governments have to our national government is to revise our energy plan based on Paris Agreement.

Julia Scott: [00:10:26] The fallout from the 2011 earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear accident defined Japan’s energy mix. Before Fukushima, 30 percent of Japan’s electricity came from nuclear. After the accident, Japan’s backup plants, in most cases coal-fired, were called on to fill the gap. Japan also started building coal-fired plants in other countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh and Indonesia, even as those countries struggled to scale down their coal-fired emissions at home.

Julia Scott: [00:10:58] Here’s what Japan Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi had to say at COP 25, the U.N. climate conference in Madrid last year. It wasn’t a popular speech.

Shinjiro Koizumi: [00:11:08] RECORDING: “Of course, I am aware of global criticism, including on our call relating policies, last week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for stopping our addiction to coal. I took this as a message to Japan. I am afraid I cannot share a new development on our coal policy today.”

Julia Scott: [00:11:35] But Minister Koizumi reversed course this September with a surprise announcement of a major scaling-back of Japan’s ambitions for new coal- fired projects in countries like Bangladesh and others, where the government does not have a complete understanding of their policies to achieve decarbonisation. NGOs and government leaders at all levels are pushing for stronger domestic commitments by Japan, something Koizumi hinted he’ll announce next year.

Julia Scott: [00:12:02] But citizen participation is not yet robust, says Mr. Tanaka.

Shinishiro Tanaka: [00:12:09] When we look at Japan as a whole, from the public, I must say that the interest in climate change is rather low. So it is extremely difficult to obtain support from citizens solely through an environmental agenda.

Julia Scott: [00:12:21] As he did in Nagano, Mr. Tanaka says the message should combine environmental issues with data showing that low-emission projects and policies revitalize local economies.

Shinishiro Tanaka: [00:12:35] Revitalization of the economy will help obtain support and will make people more interested in the issue.

Julia Scott: [00:12:47] Consider how much of the Japanese economy is at stake. Remember the 153 local governments who have committed to zero carbon? Together, they represent a GDP equivalent of 3.4 trillion U.S. dollars… Which is bigger than India… Which is the fifth largest country in the world. But COVID-19 took a huge bite out of Japan. Household consumption and manufacturing exports fell sharply. How the country grows back puts everything at stake, says Mr. Tanaka.

Shinishiro Tanaka: [00:13:24] COVID-19 will have positive and also negative effects on the environment. For example, because people are using fewer cars in the central area of Tokyo, we saw that the air pollution has improved. But on the other hand, this August we saw the highest record usage of electricity in Tokyo.

Julia Scott: [00:13:42] So much hinges on the central government’s response to COVID from a policy perspective, he says. In final assessments, COVID-19 is expected to result in a significant reduction in Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions. And the country’s share of renewable electric power, which stands at 23 percent, is likely to increase under the country’s newly elected prime minister.

Shinishiro Tanaka: [00:14:10] I actually believe that a green recovery from COVID-19 is extremely important, but unfortunately, the current government does not have that idea. It almost looks like the recovery from COVID-19 will only focus on how to increase consumer demand and how to increase productivity and the products to be produced.

Julia Scott: [00:14:34] It’s a long way to 2050. Japan’s carmakers and energy sector executives have always had a powerful voice in setting government policy. So in any future climate roadmap, they’ll have a hand on the wheel. So will the daring local governments like those in Nagano Prefecture who are embracing change and pushing for a broader shift in how Japanese society considers its relationship to growth.

Julia Scott: [00:15:04] Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Daring Cities podcast, Daring Cities is produced by me, Julia Scott, with engineering help from Chris Hoff. Special thanks to Professor Shinishiro Tanaka and to Togo Uchida and Ariel Dekovic from ICLEI.