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Iki island seeks to lead the country’s fight against the global climate crisis

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                                Iki Island is famous for its seafood; in particular, uni (sea urchin).


    Iki Island is famous for its seafood; in particular, uni (sea urchin).

                                Above, Tsutsukihama Beach on Iki Island is rated one of Japan’s Top 100 beaches.


    Above, Tsutsukihama Beach on Iki Island is rated one of Japan’s Top 100 beaches.

TOKYO >> It’s golden hour on Iki, a pristine island in southwestern Japan. A gentle breeze cools the day to a perfect 75 degrees. The roads are clean and the trees are green. Locals call Iki “lucky island” because it’s rarely affected by natural disasters.

And yet, last year Iki became the first place in Japan to declare a climate emergency.

On Sept. 25, Iki joined more than 1,250 sites in 25 countries in the emergency declaration. The goal is to mobilize resources “at sufficient scale and speed to protect civilization, economy, people, species and ecosystems,” according to the Climate Emergency Declaration website.

Although the island has made few headlines for natural disasters, Iki faces systemic and urgent threats. As a small, isolated city with a rapidly declining population, it embodies many of the problems faced by island communities across the country.

With just two Family Marts on the island, Iki stretches 10-1/2 miles from north to south and nearly 9 miles east to west. In a car, it takes less than 40 minutes to cross. Many of its residential areas are concentrated around the coast, so the island is vulnerable to rising sea levels, and its dependence on the fishing and farming industries makes the effects of climate change an increasing concern.

Declaration vs. action

Iki Mayor Hirokazu Shirakawa, 69, is polished, happy and hopeful.

While he agrees that Iki is facing immediate problems, he focuses instead on the innovations the island hopes to test and implement as a government-selected SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) Future City: using AI to cultivate asparagus and drones to carry agricultural goods, testing hydrogen engines for vehicles and connecting Iki to the power grid on mainland Kyushu.

When asked what he sees as the ideal outcome of the declaration, Shirakawa says he hopes to raise awareness among Iki’s residents.

This is one of the four main objectives of the island’s declaration and so far, where it has been most successful.

Other goals include replacing fossil fuels with renewables by 2050, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and inspiring other parts of the country to take action.

The declaration is already educating islanders; among the efforts are new initiatives that focus on raising environmental awareness in schools.

But the city is making less progress on transitioning to renewable energy and decreasing greenhouse gases.

Located about 43 miles from Kyushu, Iki runs on its own power grid. Wind contributes 2% of the island’s energy mix. Solar provides about 7%, but its potential is greater: Solar panels were shut down 70 times between 2016 and 2019 because the island doesn’t have enough batteries to store the energy produced. It’s easier to turn off renewable sources than the diesel generators that produce much of the rest of the island’s energy.

The mayor has set a goal to replace fossil fuels entirely with renewable energy sources by 2050, with intermediate goals of 15% renewable energy by 2024 and 24% by 2030. So far, little has been done to meet these objectives.

As for greenhouse gases, city plans run counter to the issue. Despite the fact that cattle farming is extremely carbon intensive, Iki is planning on increasing its current head of cattle from 7,500 to 8,600. And to help improve transport connections to the island, Iki hopes to extend its airport runway, which will increase flights to the island and, as a result, the amount of carbon released.

Meanwhile, though Iki has historically avoided natural disasters, torrential rains over the past three years have brought the island to a standstill.

In 2017, Iki was hit by heavy rainfall. It began in June, when it rained for 24 hours, reaching a peak hourly rate of more than 4-1/2 inches. The storm caused 19 landslides and 300 farmland-related disasters.

Until recently, that level of rainfall was considered to be a once-in-50-year event. But such storms have become more frequent.

Dwindling fishery

Fishermen Yasushi Matsumoto, 51, and Katsuyuki Sakaguchi, 43, suit up every day to dive into the oceans surrounding Iki. The men grew up on the island and have been working for Katsumoto Fisheries for most of their lives. Twenty years ago, they were among 40 divers at the fishery. Just 10 divers remain today.

“We see half of what was there three to four years ago,” Sakaguchi says of a typical catch, with a resigned look in his eyes.

The main challenge facing Iki’s fishing industry is the steady decline in local seaweed beds. Seaweed is essential to biodiversity, as it provides oxygen and absorbs carbon dioxide.

The decline is primarily due to rapidly rising sea temperatures, according to a 2018 study published by the Journal of Coastal Research. Over the past century, sea temperatures around Iki have increased by an average of 34.2 degrees. Seaweed beds were particularly affected in 2013, when sea temperatures rose above 86 degrees, loosening the seaweed from the ocean floor and leaving it vulnerable to a typhoon that washed beds onto beaches.

Without seaweed, there is little to draw fish to Iki’s shores.

Between 2008 and 2017, the annual catch declined about 50%, from 8,560 tons to 4,408 tons.

Katsumoto Fisheries used government subsidies to buy a big reel for catching tuna a few years ago, but it isn’t making much of a difference. “It’s meaningless if there aren’t any fish,” Matsumoto says.

Fishing is fundamental to Iki’s economy. In 2017, the industry generated 2.6 billion yen (about $23.2 million), half of what it was in 2007. The decline is having a ripple effect on other industries.

Seiji Okamoto, 45, born and raised in Iki, sits in his home-turned- Airbnb. About 10 years ago, he took over his family’s boat restoration business, which services the island’s dwindling number of fishermen. Recently, customers have had a harder time paying him for his services.

“Two or three years ago, fishermen always paid me quickly, but now they ask to wait,” he says, adding that they also ask to pay in installments. “I understand it. It’s impossible for fishermen because there are so few fish.”

But Okamoto is reorienting his business to address the increase in unused boats: As soon as he receives a license, he will provide boat-crushing services.

Iki is just beginning to feel the effects of more urgent issues that all of Japan will have to face. While the emergency declaration is focused on the future, little attention is being paid to the present.

Iki’s climate declaration also aims to encourage other parts of Japan to take similar action. It’s seems to be working.

Beyond Iki

Other cities have reached out to the mayor’s office for guidance, and local governments and prefectures are creating their own plans with an eye on Iki’s approach.

Environmental groups believe that emergency declarations can be particularly impactful in Japan, where few people are aware of the environmental crisis, due to a lack of access to English media and reporting in Japanese.

Student climate group Fridays for Future Tokyo has successfully petitioned the Metropolitan Government to declare an emergency; late last month, the municipality published its Zero Emission Tokyo Strategy.

But for now, the national government doesn’t plan to jump on the bandwagon.

“We recognize there are (declarations) in other countries, but we have no plans to make an emergency declaration at a government level,” says Takeo Sugii of the Environment Ministry.

Iki’s declaration comes with an increasing body of evidence showing Japan’s vulnerability to climate change, so many believe a declaration is not enough.

“Declaring a climate emergency always needs to come with … action and commitment,” says Hinako Arao, a field organizer at environmental group Japan.

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