Future of the Environment

Tokyo’s commitment to sustainability will extend beyond the 2020 Olympics

A woman wearing the yukata, or casual summer kimono, walks past Olympic rings displayed at Nihonbashi district in Tokyo, Japan August 5, 2019. Picture taken August 5, 2019.     REUTERS/Issei Kato - RC11F875BD90

Tokyo is set to host the Olympic Games in 2020. Image: REUTERS/Issei Kato - RC11F875BD90

Yuriko Koike
Governor, Tokyo
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Future of the Environment

As the host of the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, Tokyo is committed to delivering first-class athletic facilities and outstanding experiences to spectators. But, unlike many past Olympic hosts, the city is also committed to embedding long-term economic, social, and environmental needs into all planning processes.

In the run-up to the Olympic Games, many host cities often become vast and dusty building sites. New construction is typically aimed at meeting the immediate requirements of the event, rather than the long-term needs of the local community. Hence, many host cities are left with new, state-of-the-art venues that often become white elephants after the Games. Equally important, many cities also face harsh financial reckonings. Tokyo, the host of the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020, will not fall into this trap, because it is treating the event in the same way that it regards the economy: as needing to be run in a sustainable fashion and with a sharp eye to the future.

Image: Tokyo 2020

Of course, as Tokyo’s governor, I am committed to delivering first-class athletic facilities and outstanding experiences to all spectators who attend this important event. Yet, every step of the way, my administration is making sure that the Tokyo 2020 Games – and their long-term legacy – adhere to the principles of environmental sustainability that the city has embraced for nearly a half-century.

Tokyo’s commitment to these principles is hard-won. After the Pacific War (World War II) ended, Tokyo – like the rest of Japan – was concerned, first and foremost, with reconstruction. During the 1950s and 1960s, Tokyo’s economy (and its landscape) was transformed dramatically. Due to rapid economic growth beginning around 1955, growth in Tokyo’s population accelerated. As many factories were built, the city’s environment worsened visibly. Enthusiasm for hosting the Tokyo 1964 Olympic and Paralympic Games prioritized economic growth ahead of environmental concerns.

Then the oil crisis of the 1970s exposed the folly of building an economy so dependent on fossil fuels. In the ensuing decades, Tokyo transformed itself again, from one of the world’s largest consumers of fossil fuels to a leader in the use of renewable energy. Once one of the world’s most polluted cities, Tokyo is now one of the cleanest, despite the huge population that depends on this megacity.

This was not some felicitous outcome of an ad hoc process of short-term thinking and quick fixes. It involved careful planning, based on clear-eyed assessments of Tokyo’s long-term needs. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is adhering to the same approach and seeks to go further.

When I became governor in 2016, my administration set environmental sustainability goals for 2020 and 2030. Just three years later, we are already approaching 100% compliance with our 2020 goals, including reducing the provision of free plastic bags at stores and a shift to LED light bulbs in households and businesses.

Tokyo is also making major strides toward achieving its 2030 goals. For example, we are close to the target for the reduction of waste that ends up in landfills, and we are roughly halfway toward achieving our target for renewable-energy use. We have also made progress toward the goal of ensuring that 50% of new car sales in Tokyo will be zero-emission vehicles by 2030.

Moreover, since 2016, we have reduced Tokyo’s energy consumption by nearly 24% – more than half our 38% target for 2030 – using the Tokyo Cap-and-Trade Program for large facilities, and other aggressive measures. Our “green building” policies are poised to slash energy use further and expand use of renewables. I am confident that, in the long term, Tokyo will reach zero emissions, as promised.

Far from being allowed to undermine this progress, the Olympic and Paralympic Games will reinforce it. The event can be thought of as the “Sustainable Games,” though there is nothing playful or lighthearted about our commitment to managing their environmental impact.

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But keeping the Games “green” is only the first step. Since the day I took office, I have been determined to ensure that the 2020 Games are a boon for Tokyo’s economy – and that the positive effects will be felt well into the future. That has meant reducing the bloated budget I inherited, while embedding Tokyo’s long-term economic, social, and environmental needs into all planning processes. In the Athletes Village, for example, one of the buildings will be supplied with CO2-free hydrogen generated in Fukushima Prefecture. The apartments in the Village will be sold after the Tokyo 2020 Games.

This is the kind of planning that cities around the world need. In fact, as a metropolis that has experienced rapid growth, Tokyo can serve as a model for other fast-growing urban areas like Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City, and Jakarta. That is why Tokyo’s government consults with other urban leaders in Asia and elsewhere on the benefits – including the economic benefits – of environmental sustainability.

But the time for persuasion must end, giving way to an era of intense, concerted action. As Haruki Murakami, perhaps the world’s best-known contemporary Japanese author, wrote in his 1988 novel Dance Dance Dance, “the clock is ticking, the hours are going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting.”

Cities must act now, rather than allowing the passage of time to transform possibilities for a more prosperous and sustainable future into regrets about opportunities missed. Of course, it will not be easy. However, a better future is possible if cities around the world approach the challenge as Tokyo has approached the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games: with a strong, principled, and meticulously implemented commitment to protecting their citizens’ – and the planet’s – long-term interests.

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Related topics:
Future of the EnvironmentClimate ChangeSustainable Development
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