Move the nation’s environmental policy forward

The new Basic Environment Plan, which sets a basic direction for the nation’s environmental policies, reflects the ideas behind major developments in international efforts on environmental issues since it was last updated six years ago, including the 2015 Paris agreement to combat climate change and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It says that environmental policy must be designed so that innovation from all perspectives — including socio-economic systems, lifestyles and technology — will not only maximize the effects to protect the environment but simultaneously help solve the nation’s economic and social challenges, enabling “new growth” that will ensure a high quality of life into the future.

The Basic Plan, approved by the Cabinet in mid-April, needs to be quickly fleshed out with concrete policy measures, whose implementation and effects should be regularly checked and assessed. Its ways of thinking must be embedded in actual government policy.

Japan’s policy on environmental problems has often been constrained by deep-rooted thinking that stringent environment regulations and measures to fight climate change can slow economic growth. Bureaucratic divisions between different government organizations due to their seemingly conflicting interests, such as the gap between the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry over renewable energy and the introduction of a carbon tax or an emissions-trading system, slow efforts to address climate change.

The environment plan shows how such thinking is outdated. Today, the environmental, economic and social challenges confronting Japan are closely interrelated. To achieve a sustainable society, its says, its environment, economic and social aspects need to be improved in an integrated manner, and there can neither be socio-economic development at the sacrifice of the environment nor environmental preservation achieved at the cost of economic growth.

The Paris agreement seeks to cut emissions of global warming gases to effectively zero in the latter half of this century to contain post-industrial revolution rises in global temperatures below levels that are feared to bring catastrophic environmental consequences. The SDGs spell out goals and targets that must be achieved to enable all people in the world to lead a rich life without environmental destruction. The plan refers to the concept of a “carbon budget” — that there is a limit to the net cumulative amount of man-made emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. The concept of “planetary boundary” tells us that humans can live safely and prosper only within the boundaries of the ecosystem. “It is time for a paradigm shift” in environment policy to explore “a new civilized society,” the environment plan says.

Internationally agreed on frameworks such as the Paris climate accord and the SDGs, the plan says, have potential to be game changers that fundamentally alter the direction of socio-economic activities over the coming several decades. Many countries have indeed engaged in efforts to achieve a post-carbon society and are finding business opportunities in the endeavor. But, as is noted in the plan, Japan lags behind many other major nations in such efforts. Such a delay, the plan warns, risks Japan losing its international presence in the efforts, possibly affecting the trust in its firms and their competitiveness, and leaving them out of the global value chain.

The situation also brings opportunities for Japan to climb up the value chain by making the most of its companies’ excellent environment-related technologies. As the plan puts it, the global effort toward a post-carbon society is likely to significantly expand latent demand for Japan’s energy-saving and other technologies, which could become a driving engine of the nation’s economy. It’s a choice that Japan will need to make in the competition to be a leader in this global effort.

Beefing up Japan’s environmental policies also has the potential to contribute to the revival of its rural regions that are suffering from depopulation. The exodus of youths to urban centers and the subsequent decline in the rural regions’ working-age population pose a threat to local environment preservation efforts as a shortage of farmers and forestry workers gives rise to abandoned farmland and unattended forests that disrupt biodiversity and the ecosystem. On the other hand, rural regions can make full use of their rich resources such as natural scenery and farm, forestry and fisheries products to build networks with nearby cities for exchanges of people, money and goods. Development of eco-tourism, consumption of local food and renewable energy will be among the examples of such efforts. This is also where a paradigm shift in approaching environmental issues is needed.