Asia’s growing urban population is placing the environment under heavy strain, but Japan is proving we can implement effective policies for a greener future.
Over the last few decades, Asian economies have experienced a phenomenal rise to prominence on the global stage. Making way for socioeconomic growth, however, has incurred heavy costs: overexploitation of resources, degradation of the environment and intensified urbanisation, all of which are interlinked and which in turn are threatening Asia’s economy and society.
Today, policymakers in Asia must grapple with the need to balance economic growth with environmental conservation, and therefore to transition to green growth strategies for a more sustainable future.
Japan, in particular, is leading the region with a proactive approach. With virtually no natural energy resources, how does the nation – the world’s largest importer of coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) – reduce its reliance on fossil fuels while continuing to advance economically?
Boosting renewables in the energy mix
According to a report by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), it is estimated that the total energy demand in Japan will increase from 940 TWh in 2013 to 980.8 TWh in 2030.
To cope with this increase, METI proposed new energy targets for 2030, aiming to secure 20–22 per cent through nuclear generation and 22–24 per cent from renewable energy sources, while reducing the share from coal to 26 per cent, LNG to 27 per cent and oil to just 3 per cent.
As of the end of March 2015, the amount of such electricity grew 1.9 timesfrom before the system was introduced.
The Age of Energy Democracy
More than marking a systemic effort to generate green energy, the reduced cost of renewables also sparked a movement of energy from large, centralised monopolies to small-scale, dispersed systems. More individuals and regional communities are becoming self-reliant in energy production and management and, as a result, the conversation around energy management is changing.
Referring to this shift as “the Age of Energy Democracy”, Tetsunari Iida, executive director of Japan’s Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies (ISEP), foresees the energy industry as being democratised through the ability of smaller communities to make their own decisions about energy policies.
Redistributing the population and wealth
Urbanisation has reached a tipping point. More than half of the world’s population now live in urban areas, and Asia’s urban population is set to soar by 16 per cent by 2050. Megacities (containing 10 million or more inhabitants), bursting at the seams and buckling under the weight of an insatiable appetite for resources, will present numerous challenges to meet their needs for infrastructure, transportation, employment, housing and basic services such as education and health care.
As Tokyo is the largest city in the world with 38 million inhabitants, Japan has particular cause for concern. An obvious solution is therefore to revitalise the regional economies to encourage the flow of population away from megacities – one that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already pledged to do.
For the fiscal year beginning this April, the Abe administration plans to spend 100 billion yen on local revitalisation initiatives. While each region is responsible for planning its own projects, the deployment of renewable energy is ideal for such efforts and, in 2013, the administration set up a fund for just such dual purposes: to invest in clean energy projects and support regional companies at the same time.
A smart, sustainable future for all
Frost & Sullivan research estimates a combined market potential of US$1.5 trillion globally for the smart city market by 2020. Unsurprisingly, Japan is already banking on it: the development of smart cities and towns combines the country’s regional revitalisation efforts with increasing energy efficiency nationwide.
Four of its major cities – Yokohama, Kyoto, Toyota and Kitakyushu – are already forging ahead with a variety of experiments in order to create sustainable economic growth. In addition, Panasonic has developed two smart, sustainable towns in Japan: Shioashiya and Fujisawa SST.
Both projects are carefully planned to maximise energy resources and smart home technologies to enable a comfortable, eco-friendly and secure lifestyle for residents. Looking to the future, it’s clear we can expect to see the development of more smart communities to meet our environmental and economic goals.