|Japanese officials say it may take ten years to completely rebuild after the earthquake and tsunami [GALLO/GETTY]
Tokyo, Japan - In March 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami left nearly 20,000 people dead or missing and destroyed 125,000 buildings in the Tohoku region of Japan. The two disasters also caused three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, which released dangerous levels of radiation into surrounding areas and led to national power shortages. Tokyo's iconic neon signs were switched off as rolling blackouts spread across the country. Faced with the greatest reconstruction task since World War II, Japan is asking difficult questions about the future of its energy supply and just what sort of society should emerge from the ruins.
So far, rebuilding efforts have focused on construction of temporary housing, restoration of crippled infrastructure and clearing the estimated 25 million tonnes of debris created by the destructive force of the tsunami. Officials say it could take ten years to completely rebuild the affected areas.
In the coming months, even years, there is a catchphrase familiar in disaster recovery that we can expect to hear a lot of in Japan: "Build back better." This concept has gained prominence since the recovery process following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and, more recently, with the earthquake in Haiti.
The underlying principles of build back better include:
- Maintaining and enhancing quality of life for those affected by the disaster
- Enhancing local economic viability
- Promoting equity
- Maintaining environmental quality
- Reducing vulnerability by increasing disaster resilience
- Incorporating a participatory process with respect to rebuilding efforts
Prime Minister Naoto Kan, before his resignation, urged Japan to embrace the European eco-town model - with communities that strive to be both carbon neutral and affordable - as the country looked to rebuild. In the United Kingdom, eco-towns are being explored as new developments that reflect the "four Cs" - climate, connectivity, community and character.
"Climate" speaks to a focus on climate-proofing communities (ie, ensuring that they can cope with and adapt to the impacts of climate change) and minimising their carbon footprint. "Connectivity" is about using technology and public transportation to enable access to employment opportunities. The "community" aspect focuses on the need to promote a balanced social mix, ensuring inclusion of the most vulnerable, such as the elderly and single parents. Finally, "character" advocates rigorous new design standards and creating a unique sense of place. Good examples of European eco-towns or eco-cities include Amersfoort in the Netherlands, Freiburg in Germany and Zaragoza in Spain. These cities seek to reduce waste, conserve energy, make use of natural spaces and enhance walkability while discouraging car use.
Japan's own interpretation of the eco-town was first established in Kitakyushu in 1997 with support from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the Ministry of the Environment. By 2005, 23 urban areas had been designated eco-towns (including Kamaishi Town in Iwate prefecture, which was badly damaged by the tsunami). Unlike their European counterparts, these towns have focused on developing industrial parks, introducing earth-friendly technologies and promoting environmental methods such as integrated waste management, the three Rs (reduce, reuse and recycle), green consumerism and energy conservation.
Redeveloping the communities affected by the tsunami will bring the considerable challenge of balancing the speed of rebuilding with the consent of the people. For instance, the government is considering building new housing on hills away from the coast, using the coastal plain for agriculture. It has also proposed consolidation of the smaller fishing towns into large industrial fishing ports. These proposals have been unpopular with the local fishing communities.
In particular, with peak oil on the immediate horizon, it is important to ensure that communities in the Tohoku region are resilient against future fuel shortages as well as in the face of climate- and natural disaster-related risks. In terms of food production, the disaster-affected prefectures are some of the most food self-sufficient in Japan, providing Tokyo with many agricultural products. If these areas were to shift toward mechanised industrial agricultural systems, through the consolidation of farm holdings, they would become increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of peak oil (because industrial agriculture is heavily mechanised and consumes large quantities of fuel).
The experience of the Transition Movement - an international network of cities and communities working to build resilience in the face of climate change and peak oil - could be helpful in guiding reconstruction efforts in Japan. The Transition approach can be particularly instructive in demonstrating how to rebuild using bottom-up rather than top-down methods (the top-down approach has been characteristic of most Japanese eco-towns). The Transition Movement promotes action at the local level and encourages communities to draw on their own creativity, building on existing regional resources.
One of the first Transition Towns, Totnes in the United Kingdom, has developed its own Energy Descent Action Plan to try to reduce local dependence on fossil fuels. Another UK Transition Town, Lewes, has introduced a local currency designed to support the town's economy and to protect the environment (because buying locally reduces transport needs and carbon emissions).
Vision of the future
In the case of rebuilding after the Japanese tsunami, the central government-led response may make it difficult for the communities affected to influence the reconstruction effort. Following the example of the Transition Movement instead would help empower communities to develop their own vision of the future.
In Japan there are already 24 Transition Towns, including Fujino, Hayama, Koganei, Kamakura and Tsuru. In light of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear fallout, people in Fujino, for instance, have followed Transition principles in wondering if they could set up and run their own electric power company, an idea that has attracted about 20 new people to the Fujino Transition team. Other Japanese localities have done similarly in the past, for example, Kuzumaki in Iwate prefecture. With a population of only 7,000, that town set up the Green Power Kuzumaki Company in 2001. The project developed 12 wind turbines each with a capacity of 1,750 kilowatts.
In Fujino and other parts of Japan, there is increasing awareness of the need for an energy shift away from fossil fuels and nuclear power. As Hide Enomoto, a member of the Fujino Transition team, points out, subsequent to the Fukushima disaster people no longer ask: "Why do we need an energy shift?" - but instead: "How do we make this shift?" In the absence of national leadership, it will be in communities such as Fujino that this shift - and a more resilient future for Japan - could begin to take shape.
The type of Japan that emerges from the rubble of Fukushima will also depend on the energy policies embraced by Japan's leaders. Prior to the events of March 11, Japan had plans to construct nine new nuclear power plants by 2020 and at least 14 by 2030. Nuclear power supplies about 25 per cent of Japan's energy, with renewables accounting for around ten per cent. But after the disaster, Prime Minister Naoto Kan advocated phasing out nuclear energy, with an aggressive push for renewables. A poll in June 2011 by the Asahi newspaper found that 74 per cent of the public was in favour of abolishing nuclear power after a phase-out period.
But amid growing criticism of his handling of the crisis - and questions over his new energy strategy - Kan resigned in August. The building of new nuclear power plants remains on hold, but Kan's successor, Yoshihiko Noda, has backed away from a rapid shift away from nuclear power. Vested interests, including the ten regional electricity providers and the companies that design the plants - Toshiba, Hitachi and Mitsubishi - continue to advocate for nuclear power. Officials in the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry have consistently argued that "nuclear power is essential" because "renewable energy alone isn't sufficient".
Yet public support remains strong for renewable energy. Transforming Japan's energy policy is an uphill, but not unwinnable battle, leading advocates insist. The Japan Renewable Energy Foundation, set up by the prominent business leader, Masayoshi Son, argues that Japan can have 60 per cent renewable energy by 2030. Tetsunari Iida, executive director at the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies, has called for a 100 per cent shift to renewables by the middle of the century. Iida argues in a recent paper that Japan is experiencing its third historic reset with the Tohoku-Kanto triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident - the first reset was the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the second was the end of World War II.
To meet these targets for renewable energy, however, Japan will also need to reduce its electricity consumption by 50 per cent compared with 2010 levels, through energy efficiency and power-saving measures. Iida is in favour of phasing out nuclear power gradually, dropping from 25 per cent today, to ten per cent in 2020, to zero in 2050.
Is such a shift possible? Mark Jacobson thinks so. Jacobson was lead researcher in a Stanford University study that argued that we can power the world on 100 per cent clean energy (not including nuclear) within 20 years. Commenting on Japan's plight, he explained that the "key is to combine real renewables (wind, concentrated solar power, photovoltaics, geothermal, hydroelectric, wave and tidal) into a bundle to match hourly supply with demand". Jacobson's team showed that this could be done for California, where they found that renewables were able to match hourly demand 99.8 per cent of the time over two years.
But Jacobson is aware of the resistance among policymakers. Past energy decisions in Japan have been biased in favour of nuclear power and centralised energy systems. Prior to the disaster, Japan was falling behind other industrialised countries in the development of renewable energy. A March 2011 report [PDF] by the Pew Environment Group titled Who's Winning the Clean Energy Race? shows that China is surging ahead - attracting a record $54.4bn in clean energy investments in 2010. While Japan is the third largest economy in the world, it is ranked fifth in terms of its installed renewable energy capacity. In the past five years, according to the Pew report, renewable energy has grown by 45 per cent in Japan, compared with 108 per cent in China.
Jacobson is concerned that, in Japan, the potential to develop renewable resources has not been studied in-depth, arguing that "there is no reason Japan can't go to 100 per cent renewable if it really wants to. It is not a technological issue; it is a will-power issue, as the technology and resources are there. Generally, it is sunk special interests and subsidies to the wrong groups (namely fossil and nuclear), slowing the way. A few policy measures shifting subsidies from the polluters to clean energy would go a long way toward solving the problem".
Any measures that Japan takes now could fundamentally influence future global energy policy. According to Antony Froggatt from the British think-tank Chatham House, nuclear power currently only accounts for six per cent of global energy. If a country such as Japan, which has very few natural energy resources, were to find a new energy pathway that involved little or no nuclear and no fossil fuels, it would prove highly influential internationally.
Brendan Barrett joined the United Nations University in 1997 and heads the Media Centre. He has been working on environmental conservation issues since 1984 and is a town planner by training. He currently edits and writes for Our World 2.0, the UNU's environmental web magazine.
This article draws on material originally published by OurWorld 2.0 as part of its Transition Japan series.
A version of this article was first published on the Solutions Journal.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.