New Concept introduced in Japan: Synergizing De-carbonization, SDGs, and Ecological and Economic Development in Cities and Regions

The concept of Regional and Circular Ecological Sphere, introduced and adopted by the Government of Japan, provides the framework for cities and regions. ICLEI’s five development pathways—low emission, natural-based, circular, resilient, and equitable and people-centred—ingeniously mirror the concept of the Regional and Circular Ecological Sphere.

On 10 December 2018, at Japan Pavilion at COP24, the Ministry of Environment of Japan (MOEJ) and ICLEI co-hosted the session “De-carbonizing Era in Cities and Regions: SDGs Localization and Environment, Society, Economy in Cities and Region – Circular and Ecological Sphere (Circular and Ecological Economy)”. Moderated by Gino van Begin, Secretary General of ICLEI, the side event gathered policymakers of national and subnational governments to explore how Japanese cities synergize de-carbonization, resource efficiency, and ecological balance into the SDGs, and showcased how decision-makers of different levels in government work towards sustainability. Download the agenda.

Yasuo Takahashi, Vice Minister for Global Environmental Affairs of MOEJ, highlighted in the opening remarks that environmental policies and economic development are not exclusive but co-exist as driven forces to mutually support one another. The introduction of the Circular and Ecological Economy — or the Regional and Circular Ecological Sphere (R-CES) embedded in the 5th Basic Environmental Plan of Japan approved in 2018 — reflects that the country is and will keep pursuing the virtuous circle of the harmony of the environment and the socio-economy. With the Circular and Ecological Economy as the overarching guidance of the national environmental policies in Japan, cities and regions will benefit from adopting the concept of de-carbonization, material resource efficiency, and natural harmonization.

Sławomir Mazurek, Deputy Minister of the Environment of Poland, shared the successful example in Europe where the growth of investment and small and medium enterprises decouples with carbon emission. He argued that the clear goals and objectives of the Paris Agreement have set the scene for national and local governments to explore and mainstream the circular concept into policies. In Poland, local communities put efforts into materials recycling and renewable energy, while cities take actions on green infrastructures and innovation of natural-based solutions with citizens’ living quality and ecological balance taken into consideration. Mazurek believes that Katowice is a good case to show the harmonization between humans, nature and innovative technologies, and can demonstrate the potential of leaving a better quality of nature to the future generation.


The Concept of Regional and Circular Ecological Sphere in Japan

The concept of R-CES is an integrated concept incorporating low-carbon society development with resource circulation and harmony with nature.

As one of the lead initiators of the R-CES, Dr. Kazuhiko Takeuchi, the President of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, briefly explained the development of the concept in Japan. Originated from the discussion of the “regional circular sphere” on the nexus between material circulation and geographical proximity back in 2008, the Government further recognized the importance of urban-rural cooperation and human-nature co-existence and proposed the “socio-ecological sphere” – a resilient society connected by ecosystem services—in the National Biodiversity Strategy of Japan (2012-2020). In 2018, the Government, once again, revised its strategies and introduced the R-CES, which better integrates environmental policies and highlights the inclusion of the concept of planetary boundaries, the SDGs, and inclusive social development.

The R-CES is a holistic and comprehensive concept that can be adopted by governments of different levels to encourage multi-level governance and multi-stakeholder partnership including academia, non-governmental organizations, and businesses. It emphasizes cities and rural areas being re-connected with natural resources including food, river, and forests provided to sustain human lives, and being self-reliant for materials and energy. Human society supports nature with socio-economic systems.

With the concept of R-CES as the core value, regions, cities, and communities would move to develop robust and resilient societies where various resources are circulated within each region, utilize unique characteristics and strengths, and lead to symbiosis and exchange with neighboring regions.




R-CES in Practice: Japan

Nagano Prefecture

Designated by the national government as one of the SDGs Future Cities in Japan, Nagano has formed an SDGs consortium consisting of governments, industries, financial institutions, and academia to facilitate the localization of the SDGs and the R-CES. The guiding strategy for development, the Nagano Comprehensive Five-Year Plan (2018-2022), includes policies contributing to achieving the SDGs and integrating the environment, economy, and social welfare. With an ambitious low carbon society vision and 100% renewable energy target, Nagano has established a variety of schemes to foster the transitions towards building energy efficiency and renewable energy. In rural areas such as Ina City, natural resources are appreciated and bio-economies are developed based on the strengths and characteristics of the area. Resources are circulated in the Prefecture and its neighboring regions.

Eri Nakashima, Vice Governor of Nagano Prefecture, emphasized the importance of international cooperation and information exchange in realizing the R-CES. Through working with Finnish cities and ICLEI under the Green Circular Cities Coalition, and seizing the opportunity of hosting the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Energy Transitions and Global Environment for Sustainable Growth in 2019, Nakashima expected the concept and implementation experiences of the R-CES will inspire more cities around the world, and lead to the creation of partnerships among local governments and stakeholders for wider impacts.

Itabashi City

Itabashi City is a recognized leader in promoting environmental and sustainable education in Japan. Takeshi Sakamoto, Mayor of Itabashi, shared the city’s experiences of embedding sustainable development and the R-CES in the education system. Itabashi recognizes human recourses and the future generation as the critical elements in achieving the SDGs and focuses its works on incorporating biodiversity conservation, waste reduction, the concept of smart city, and their linkages to the SDGs in different levels of education. In particular, Mayor Sakamoto emphasized the importance of ‘think globally and act locally, which is also reflected in the example of the student exchange program on environmental education between Itabashi and Malaysia.

Itabashi has an ambitious vision for the next decade: to become a smart city that links people and the environment to the future. To achieve this, the city will continue to work on emissions reduction and circularity enhancement through measures on energy efficiency, waste reduction and separation, and the utilization of innovative technologies.

Yokohama City

Aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, the Japanese SDGs Future City Yokohama has recently revised its Climate Change Policy Plan based on the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 Degrees. In addition, the City also targets to integrate rural and urban areas to harmonize the environment, economy, and social aspects through synergizing the SDGs and the R-CES.

Kazumi Kobayashi, Deputy Mayor of Yokohama, explained, that in realizing the vision, Yokohama has set practical strategies and quantified carbon emission targets for 2020 and 2030 and introduced 8 basic policies consisting of 135 measures on the R-CES, which includes a set of policies and measures on circularity and renewable energy development.

As the host of the 2018 World Circular Economy Forum, Yokohama acknowledges the importance of international cooperation and experiences sharing with other cities and local governments. In 2019, an SDGs design center will be established in the City, aiming to expand cooperation with various stakeholders and to build a solid foundation for a zero-carbon Yokohama.


Circular Cities in Practice: Europe

City of Bonn, Germany

Ashok Sridharan, Mayor of Bonn and the President of ICLEI, shared the City’s experience in setting up a participatory and multi-stakeholder approach for the first sustainable strategy to link and streamline policies with regard to the City’s 2030 agenda.

Circularity goes hand-in-hand with sustainability in the strategy. Under the German regulatory framework, Bonn works on the implementation of circularity in the aspects of production, consumption, and recycling through the joint cooperation among the local government, communities, and businesses.

Bonn uses thermal energy from waste treatment and steam from power plants. Such practices also lower the carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency. In reducing waste, a swap and exchange platform was set up. In addition, the circular economy is also driven by local communities and businesses through repair cafes, upcycling goods, and sustainable production.

City of Turku, Finland

Finland is one of the pioneers in the circular economy in Europe. The country published its national circular economy roadmap in 2016, setting the foundation for cities and regions to adopt sustainable development and circular actions in local development plans.

Similar to many Japanese cities, the Finnish city Turku has set up its goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2029, and become a resource-wise city by 2040. In achieving the vision, Risto Veivo, Development Manager of Climate, Environment Policy and Sustainable Development of Turku, emphasized the importance of urban and rural areas being able to work together and benefit from each other by embedding and mainstreaming the circular economy practices and introduced the example of a wastewater treatment plant adopting the water-food-energy nexus concept, which has contributed to climate adaptation, mitigation, and ecological condition and energy efficiency in the neighboring 9 municipalities of Turku.

Turku is actively contributing to working with ICLEI on developing the Green Cities Coalition. With the enthusiasm to cooperate and mutually learn from other cities around the world, Turku is keen to share experiences and expertise on sustainable development and the circular transition.


Insights from China

The vision for a circular economy was first introduced in China under the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) with a special focus on closing the loops within businesses and industrial parks. Cities were later on recognized as the main actors in deploying the circular economy in the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015), and over 100 cities were designed as circular city pilots during the period. The recent 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) further expanded the implementation to particular sectors, with 46 cities selected to examine and implement a waste separation scheme.

With extensive experience cooperating with Chinese local governments, Merlin Lao, Program Manager of ICLEI East Asia, shared his observation of the development of decarbonization and the circular economy in China. According to him, the current narrative of the circular economy in China focuses mostly on technology and waste management, whereas the relationship between the ecological sphere and the societal development is rather overlooked. Chinese cities and regions have been aware of the potential of the circular economy in terms of technology development and innovation, but they are gradually keen to pursue the comprehensive circular transition, especially due to the environmental threats such as server pollution in water, soil, and air.

With strong support from the cities above, ICLEI initiated the Green Circular Cities Coalition, aiming to facilitate international cooperation on circular cities at the sub-national level. Given the significant interest to collaborate on the circular economy between the European Union and China, and between Finland and Japan, ICLEI, as a city network with the extensive experience in working with over 1500 cities around the world foresees the Coalition contributing to realizing the vision of circular and R-CES cities via multi-level governance and international cooperation.

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