Japan's national Eco-Model Cities program has set aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals in 13 of its urban areas, from small towns to some of its largest cities. These cities and towns are showcased as they try to achieve excellent performance in a variety of locally flavored sustainability strategies.
Eco-Model Cities, started in 2008 and expanded last year, comes from an office of the national government, JETRO, the Japan External Trade Organization. It's a well-conceived and marketed attempt to convey leadership on economic and societal innovation. Other nations such as the United States and China should consider doing something similar, though it's doubtful the US could muster the executive support in the current political climate.
From the overall zero carbon and renewable energy goals of Yokohama (3.67 million) to a small town of 2,000 that is trying to hit zero waste by 2020 (recycling of household waste in Kamikatsu reached 90 percent in 2005, with 34 categories of stuff actively recycled), Japan is taking an aggressive stance in carbon control and economic development from the bottom up.
It's an effort that has the support of top national leadership: in fact Chiyoda, home of the nation's Imperial Palace and the Prime Minister's Office, is one of the Eco-Cities. It has a population of 45,000 at night but swells with 800,000 government and business day tripper commuters. By 2050, the city portends a reduction in its volume of auto commuters: Chiyoda aims to reduce its greenhouse gases 50% from 1990 levels by that date.
Many of the cities are targeting renewable energy, such as Iida City (108,000), a mid-sized mountain city with a building-integrated PV solar transportation network.
Obihiro (170,000) has farming co-ops practicing in a network of sustainable agriculture production; it's one of the rural cities in the Eco Model Cities baker's dozen. Some other rural small towns in the group are involved in alternative fuel production and processing. The coral reef island of Miyokajima (56,000) grows and processes sugarcane as a biofuel.
Kyoto (1.47 million) historic center of temples and shrines, has set an aggressive carbon-reduction goal. Like Yokohama, Kyoto is trying to reduce GHGs 60% from 1990 levels by 2050. Practicing bio-regionalism, the city is planning low carbon building development using local materials.
One of the cities is named Toyota. With 420,000 people, Toyota (city) is the home of the global auto manufacturer. While most of the other Eco-Model Cities have a goal of reducing driving, Toyota (city) is trying to develop solar-charging infrastructure while influencing citizen driving behaviors so the town becomes more energy efficient.
Not all of the 13 Eco-Model cities have a happy story. Minamata (29,000) was the scene of one of the nation's worst environmental disasters, a mass mercury poisoning that lasted from 1932 to 1968. It is trying to reinvent itself through recycling and--yes--waste management.
Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active consultancy based in San Anselmo, California. He is a Fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute and author of How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings.