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Zero-emission plan praised, with a little bit of criticism

TOKYO >> Just days before the new year, Tokyo 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.

“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,” Koike said.

The plan 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 yen (about $683.6 million) to achieve net-zero carbon emissions, according to a 2020 budget plan.

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

Riyanti Djalante of 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. But she also added that while Tokyo has taken a “very proactive approach” by consulting scientists and businesses, nongovernmental organizations and the community need to be more involved.

By 2030, Tokyo 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% and slash food waste to 50% of what it was in 2000.

To achieve decarbonization, the capital plans to expand the use of hydrogen energy as it weans itself off fossil fuels.

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 yen (more than $10 billion) in damage. Temperatures last summer topped 104 degrees in Tokyo for the first time on record, hospitalizing mostly elderly people 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.

Takayoshi Yokoyama of 350 Japan, the local branch of a global environmental group, praised Tokyo for setting shorter-term goals to gauge progress and taking a multifaceted approach to a complex issue.

But he also said the plan lacks flexibility and a mechanism that would allow it to adjust to the worsening conditions of climate change. In addition, “it’s necessary for the residents of Tokyo to change their lifestyles, and this plan doesn’t make that message clear enough.”

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% of carbon dioxide emissions, are “where the climate battle will be largely won or lost.”

Japan has long been the subject of criticism for its dedication to fossil fuels. The latest wave of scrutiny came at the U.N. Climate Change Conference when an environmental group gave the “Fossil of the Day” award to Japan for its continued use of coal and other fossil fuels. Days later, a report from a group of more than 30 NGOs revealed that Japan’s three largest banks are also the world’s top financiers of coal plants and since January 2017 had accounted for 32% of direct lending to coal plant developers.

Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi was candid in his response.

“At this time, realistically speaking, it’s impossible for Japan to stop using fossil fuels,” he said. “The same goes for coal.”

The conference 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 emissions by 2050.

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

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