Japan’s Green Renewal? After the Disasters UN Tour


I’ve returned from a sobering United Nations-led tour of six tsunami-damaged communities and two radiation-impacted cities in Northern Japan. The obvious conclusion: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident is forcing Japan to go green, including the launch of a new renewable energy national feed-in tariff that starts in July.Meanwhile the governor of Fukushima, Yuhei Sato, told us that renewables will be the “key factor” in the revival of his devastated prefecture.

Though little planning is in evidence yet as to how this economic and energy transformation will be integrated, our UN tour did witness fragmented signs that Japan can provide a developed-nation resilience role model in the face of cultural, energy system and environmental devastation.

Organized by the Nagoya, Japan-based UN Center for Regional Development (UNCRD), we traveled fora week as part of a fact-finding mission with UNCRD director Chikako Takase and her staff. The mission was called “Reconstruction Towards Sustainable Communities” andmy role was to advise Japanese community leaders on green economic development recovery strategies and opportunities. I had met with a range of clean tech energy companies and urban planning and design firms in preparation,as well as the US Department of Commerce.

I was joined by experts from five countries, Japan, Australia, Bangladesh, Thailand and the US. One fellow American represented the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It seems our contingent was somewhat of a novelty. I was told by the UN and the US Embassy in Tokyo that we were one of the first (if not the first) from outside the three affected prefecturesto meet with local
leaders on reconstruction and post-disaster management planning.

Ishinomaki group.JPG

UN reconstruction tour group of Japan disaster areas, in Ishinomaki (photos Warren Karlenzig)

The tsunami-scoured coastal cities where some 20,000 died–bodies are still being discovered by white ships trolling the coast and on land by locals–are focused on the future of survivors. We visited temporary housing and just-opened temporary retail developments. These modular constructed units, complete with personal flairs such as lanterns, public benches and landscaping, house locally-owned shops from bars to barbers to fish mongers that were wiped out by the tsunami.

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Global Mayors Start Acting Upon UN’s Sustainable City Manual


After providing the curriculum for training urban leaders from 12 Southeast and
Central Asian nations a few weeks ago (Manila, Philippines is pictured above), the United Nations is now globally launching the full content of the Shanghai Manual:A Guide for Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century.

The free publication features 47 global urban sustainability case studies and dozens of timely policy recommendations, especially when one considers the lack of global climate treaties due to tactics of “delaying nations” at the Durban climate talks, including the US. Instead, the Shanghai Manual is a practical tool intended to help the world’s major and medium-sized cities in developing nationsfurther advance their local green economies. The “green economy” is also the key theme of the 2012 United Nations Conference on
Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20.

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Learning from Japan about Resilience


Hourly Japan ‘s tragedy grows almost beyond comprehension (3/16 Update: The head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission said this afternoon that releases of radiation at Fukushima have been “extremely high” and that “could impact the ability to take corrective measures.”). There is universal empathy over the pain and
suffering being experienced, fear about impacts on Japan’s and the world’s
economy, and anxiety about releases of radiation. For those of us living in seismically
active coastal earthquake zones (me), or anyone living in the airshed of an
active nuclear facility (most of us), or
living downwind (the West Coast of the US and Canada), concerns are multiplied.  

We must use this teachable moment to comprehensively
plan for climate change, energy availability and transformational natural
disasters. These multi-dimensional factors present non-linear problems bound up
together, a “wicked problem.”

The urban need for effective resilience planning has never
been more urgent or daunting. The Sendai Earthquake shattered existing risk models
with a 9.0 initial offshore earthquake, spawning a colossal tsunami from the
epicenter toward shore, resulting in a humanitarian crisis underpinned by now-uncontrolled
nuclear radiation releases.

Loss of life is rampant, and amongst survivors physical and
psychological suffering is acute. 

All grids are down, no transportation, communications or
energy are available in impact zones. Yet, the modest bicycle has emerged triumphant from the
chaos in Tokyo
and beyond

Infrastructure, communications, trains, subways, roads,
energy, soil, air, water, and food are all impacted in terms of delivery, quality
and supply. People are wisely cloistered indoors, but getting basic supplies
will become the next concern for survival even before the radiation leaks subside.

In terms of global economic fallout, supply chains are getting hit, (microcontrollers,
airplanes, and the automotive and electronics sectors,
impacting global trade at least for the year.

Trend: World supply of renewables are being recalculated and

Nuclear has lost its dubious “renewable” status
permanently. Anything that makes land and resources unusable and dangerous for
years should not qualify as a first solution. But with coal use likely peaking
as an energy source and because its threat to climate, we are forced to consider nuclear
as an energy option.

Trend: Need for New Nuclear Power Plant Criteria

Earthquake, and Cat 3 to 5 hurricane and typhoon zones
should be taken off the global list of available nuclear energy generation sites. Nuclear needs a complete re-examination in
terms of lifecycle energy costs (how much energy is used in mining uranium and
other material) as well as lifecycle radiation risks.

Trend: Nuclear won’t be Dismissed Outright

Considering the increase in the cities of the developing world
(China, India) and their need for energy–it will be almost impossible to
dismiss nuclear as an energy source, unless some very massive leapfrog
technology comes along. We’re stuck with most of the nuclear plants we have,
at least for now. Plants should be
scrutinized, even temporarily or permanently closed if they can’t be run with “Post-Fukushima” confidence. Germany is doing just
to its older nuclear plants. The EU is stress testing more than 100 of its nuclear plants, according to the American Public Media show Marketplace.

France, the world’s leading nuclear economy, doesn’t get major
temblors or tropical storms.  China, on the
other hand, has massive fault zones. Southeast China, like the southeast US,
also hosts its version of Hurricane Alley in its Pearl River Delta region.
China has 13 plants up and running with 20 in planning stages, many in severe
typhoon and earthquake risk areas (3/16 Update: China announced it was at least for now suspending the 37 nuclear plants it had in construction or planning stages.)

The challenge for urban planning agencies in the
Pacific Rim: cities are more likely to be coastal, putting them at heightened
risks for Pacific earthquake zones as well as climate change risks. The rising average
ocean levels resulting from melting polar ice caps will only make tsunamis
and flood events worse. The West Coast of the US dodged a bullet when the tsunami from Japan hit at
low tide: still, California alone had more than $30 million in tsunami damage
last week.

Sea level rises will exacerbate the damage caused by tsunamis, and will also increase
sea water intrusion into drinking water supplies and fresh water ecosystems. About 1.6 million households in Japan were without water as of 3/18.

Distributed Energy, Communications, Transportation and Radiation

Energy: Solar, biogas and fuel cell technologies will gain as
they can be used on or near where they generate energy, providing energy
supplies even after disasters take down the power grid. Distributed forms of
energy require only local transmission lines, which can be repaired quickly.
Wind energy relies more on national grid energy transmission networks (though as
the most affordable major renewable energy supply, wind demands a share of the energy pie). Because
of transmission risks, coal plants will decline, even if “clean coal” is
perfected, let alone invented. Electricity supply is spotty from Tokyo north. Tokyo faces six months of brownouts, or reduced power because of the nuclear crisis (nuclear provides the nation with 30% of its total electric power).

Communications: Cellular telephone service in Japan was severely disrupted,
not so for land lines and internet communications. The recommendation according
to the US Department of State:  “Where
possible, you may be able to contact family members using text messages or
social media such as Facebook or Twitter.” Of course that means email, chat,
Skype, Vonage, etc. work in Japan, too.

Mobility: Trains and subways are back up in the Tokyo Metro, after being mostly down for a few
days, as they are the lifeblood of urban Japanese life. The northeast region,
however, is physically cut off from the urban spine of Tokyo. My Japan
sources, Eric and Ken, tell me the regions should be able to be linked with
cycling, if the right bikes are used (mountain or cruiser tires). I got around
after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989
with an old Fisher (pre “Gary”), and was even regularly able to clamber with
that bike down a post-earthquake four-foot San Andreas Fault road drop on State
Highway One, on cliffs above the Pacific. Though Highway One north was not reopened to
cars for over a year, it still provided cyclists safe passage between West
Marin-San Francisco.

Radiation: When the French, the planet’s reigning nuclear
experts, tell their people to flee Tokyo and then the US warships evacuate,
you know things are critical. Tuesday nuclear plant overflights for aircraft were
banned and, more disturbingly, operators may have been forced by events to abandon nuclear plant control rooms

Besides the immediate risks to health, the big unknown risks
jeopardize land, infrastructure and food. How will Japan safely assess radiation
levels and then make a go/ no go decision for what’s inhabitable or edible? How
will that information be conveyed to the international community? Already the
US has made multiple requests that Japan release more data on its basic air radiation levels
(Update: in the first break of policy with Japan, the US today, 3/16, has set an evacuation zone of 50 miles for US citizens versus a Japanese zone of 12 miles.)

Imagine the complexity of trying to obtain,
analyze and effectively communicate radiation levels in soil, water, food and

Overall, Japan has remained stoic, calm, and orderly for which its
leaders and people should be greatly commended. There have been no reports of looting or price gouging. Now may we all breathe carefully, take
stock of the lessons that emerge, and plan for a world of new forces and

We should take heed from Japan. Its situation at present may
seem unbelievably hellish, but it could demonstrate for the world how to face
not only natural disasters that rightfully grab headlines, but also how to deal
with the forces that will always lurk in the background: climate change and
energy supply volatility.

Image: Associated Press via The CityFix

Karlenzig is president of Common
. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, strategic adviser to
the Institute for Strategic Resilience and co-author of
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and