As COVID-19 cases rise in Japan and the world favors cleanliness over sustainability, the budding environmental movement is being forced to adapt.
While activists are coming up with innovative ways to continue spreading their message, they worry about how the nation will be shaped by the pandemic — and fear the movement will become a distant memory when the outbreak subsides.
Just a year and a half after the local branch of Fridays For Future opened in Japan, and only eight months after a municipality in the nation declared a climate emergency for the first time, environmental activism is facing an existential crisis. COVID-19 is preventing public gatherings and events from taking place. It has also forced some companies to increase their usage of single-use plastics in order to protect products from contamination. And it is uprooting university students, who are at the heart of climate activism all over the world.
In the near term, the global quarantine is allowing the environment some space to breathe. Air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions have fallen rapidly, partly due to a severe reduction of flights and trips by car, while marine life is recovering without cruise ships cutting through their habitats, and rivers and canals are gleaming with healthy new life.
But policies that could lead to long-term environmental changes are taking a back seat, and some worry about the movement losing momentum.
“So the first priority is health, then the economy, then all the way down on the list is where the environment comes,” said Keiko Hirao, 61, a professor with Sophia University’s Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies.
At the end of March, the Environment Ministry announced its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution toward post-2020 greenhouse gas emissions reductions — a figure far lower than activists had hoped for. Publishing it in the middle of the public health crisis allowed for the news to emerge with little attention.
“I am sure that was not coincidental,” said Sam Annesley, 37, the executive director of Greenpeace Japan. “The Japanese government hasn’t really made any progress in the last five years on this plan. It’s disappointing, it’s inexcusable, but it’s also difficult to understand.”
Canceled events are making it harder for activists to make their voice heard by national governments. The global climate strike scheduled for May has been canceled and the U.N.’s climate change conference, or COP26, was postponed.
“In the short term it’s definitely taking the pressure off of governments, because they would be going through really intense planning cycles in the run-up to COP26,” said Annesley.
At the start of the outbreak, companies had to take steps that encouraged the use of single-use plastics in order to help slow the spread of the virus. At bakeries, individual pastries were wrapped in plastic, while Starbucks stopped allowing people to use reusable cups. For events that went ahead as planned, hosts replaced buffets with bento boxes.
“I think it’s a shame that that’s synonymous with cleanliness as if what was happening before was not clean in some way,” said Mona Neuhauss, 27, founder of NoPlasticJapan. “There’s going to be a new perception of what’s clean and what’s not.”
People are buying more than they need and they aren’t as worried about generating waste, Neuhauss added. The shift is a blow to the anti single-use-plastic movement that was just beginning to gain traction in Japan.
“It’s a shame that that kind of excess has become a habit because we were trying to make it a habit to cut that kind of thing down,” Neuhauss said.
And while Japan has stumbled when it comes to sustainable living in order to handle the spread of COVID-19, environmental activists in the country are finding new and innovative ways to keep the movement going.
Gatherings are migrating online and activists are finding that this is allowing groups that were previously only operating in Tokyo to spread awareness nationwide.
Robin Lewis, 31, co-founder of MyMizu and Social Innovation Japan, had events planned for Earth Day and World Water Day that were both canceled. But in March, they had their first online event on civic action during the COVID-19 crisis. The event drew 100 participants from five different countries.
Lewis plans to use a similar platform for two other scheduled events, and hopes to engage with an even wider audience.
Tokyo-based nonprofit Renewable Energy Institute held its international conference, REvision2020, which was focused on realizing a decarbonized society, via webcast on March 4. Fridays For Future Japan and No Coal Japan, a coalition of civil society groups, have been working together to put pressure on Mizuho Financial Group for its investment in coal plant developers, via social media and a website called Say No Mizuho.
While the transition online is working well for some environmental groups, others are struggling to make the shift.
Louise Burley, 20, an exchange student at Keio University and a member of activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR) Tokyo, is planning to stick things out in Japan amid the pandemic, but she hasn’t heard anything from the group since early March.
“I think everyone is taking a breather and sorting out their own lives,” she said. “Because it’s run by exchange students, there has been no communication for a few weeks. I have suggested online meetings, so we’ll see.”
In the long term, activists seem hopeful that sustainable practices will prevail when the pandemic ends.
“Maybe I’m an eternal optimist, but my fundamental belief is that even though we are facing this pandemic, I think people really still care about sustainability and will still engage in these issues,” Lewis said.
Lewis believes that people will continue to care about sustainability and try to change their behavior, despite the fact that COVID-19 could temporarily halt that progress.
The question for many environmentalists now is whether or not the global mobilization to tackle COVID-19 is something that can also be employed to take on climate change.
“With climate change there’s no immediate harm, especially to human health,” Lewis said. “It’s like we’re slow dancing in a burning room. We don’t feel the immediate-term danger. But if we can get to that sense of urgency with the pandemic, it shows that it’s possible for the climate crisis.”
The World Health Organization has warned that climate change is also expected to boost the occurrences of infectious disease. Deforestation puts humans in closer proximity to wild animals, and more severe rainy seasons and high humidity will enhance mosquito breeding and survival, according to the organization.
“Environmental health and our own health are like two sides of the same coin, so going back to business as usual is really unacceptable,” Annesley said.
The trick is seeing if people can take the urgency and fear they feel now and apply their reactions to avoid the consequences of climate change that might not be immediate concerns of theirs.
Annesley thinks that this could be a turning point in Japan that pushes citizens to question the status quo and the government.
“We see this as a potentially huge turning point,” he said. “I think as this crisis develops, it’s going to give us opportunities to really question what our society should be.”
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