- Issue: Winter 2019
- Author: Jane Braxton Little
- Photographer: Jason Houston
Yasushi Hori, a monk at Kougenji Temple near Hiroshima, begins his morning meditation at a low, lacquered dais surrounded by Buddhist icons. His clear tenor voice lifts in ritual chant, filling the 370-year-old worship hall with tones steeped in incense and tradition. As it resonates among the gilded tables, three monks join in from the base of the altar. Their incantation flows outside, to the steep conifer-covered mountains, in a chorus that includes bush warblers, crows, and the occasional frog. It is an ancient prayer for awakening to the deep connection among all living beings.
Today this invocation embraces an urgent call to action—a modern message for a world in crisis. After experiencing first-hand the terrifying effects of landslides and torrential flooding, these Buddhists have become unlikely leaders in a grassroots movement to build a climate-resilient society.
The monks meditating with Hori this morning are founders of Tera Energy, a start-up providing the electricity from renewable sources that powers Kougenji Temple. Tera means “temple” in Japanese, and alludes to both land and terabytes. The company’s logo is a light bulb enclosing a lotus blossom, a Buddhist symbol of purity.
Ryogo Takemoto, head minister of another temple and one of Tera’s founders, says he wanted to create a real-world connection between his Buddhist faith and his community. “It is part of my challenge to make society a better place,” he says.
Still small, with around 50 customers in the Hiroshima area as of August, Tera plans to supply 200 temples by the end of this year. And it aims to provide a model for climate action: “I hope other temples in other places will connect with this wild idea and start their own companies,” says Takemoto, a robust man with a twinkle in his eye.
However small its beginnings, every effort helps reduce carbon emissions, says Kougenji’s Hori: “Each of us should do whatever we can. We have to start!”
Today, there is a major gap between the main goal of the Paris agreement and the commitments countries have put forward to meet that goal.
Low-key and local, the Tera Energy entrepreneurs are members of the Japan Climate Initiative (JCI), an eclectic coalition committed to bringing distinctively Japanese solutions to the challenge of global climate change. Launched in July 2018 with support from WWF and other partners, this new face of Japanese climate action includes the multinational corporations Sony and Sumitomo Chemical, the megacities of Tokyo and Kyoto, and a forest conservation group founded by a musician—a total of 391 members as of August.
Together, they have pledged to achieve a decarbonized society by limiting their own carbon-generating activities. Several have committed to filling all of their energy needs with 100% renewable sources by 2050 or sooner. JCI members work to increase public awareness about the urgency and opportunity of climate action; inspire more companies, cities, and others to lead by example; and call for progressive public policies.
JCI is representative of a global groundswell of responses to climate change known as Alliances for Climate Action (ACA). The ACA initiative was formed by WWF and partners to support and connect an international network of domestic coalitions committed to accelerating the transition to a zero-carbon future. Japan joins Argentina, Mexico, and the We Are Still In coalition in the United States in bringing together diverse stakeholders to champion that transition from the bottom up, and to bring more local voices to the global dialogue on addressing climate change (see sidebars for more details).
JCI’s engagement cannot come soon enough. Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, is the world’s fifth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide generated by fossil fuels, which drive nearly 88% of its energy economy. Its greenhouse gas emissions account for 3.3% of the world’s total.
Like the other ACA countries, Japan is one of 195 signers of the 2015 Paris Agreement; the national government committed to reducing its carbon emissions to 26% below 2013 levels by 2030. While the agreement offers hope for addressing the climate crisis by limiting the increase in global average temperature to 1.5°C, achieving that goal will require cutting current levels of emissions in half in the next 11 years. Japan is not yet on track to hit that mark, and building a critical mass of cities, companies, and others committed to the Paris goals will be crucial to delivering the required scale of emissions reductions.
The Paris Agreement requires all parties to submit climate targets and strategies to move the world in the direction that is urgently needed. Yet recent announcements by Japan are not encouraging. In June, the government submitted a long-term strategy to the United Nations that specifies neither a target for increasing renewable energy nor a timeline for phasing out coal. With a carbon emissions reduction target of 80% by 2050, the strategy falls far short of the net-zero goals set by a growing number of countries. “It is very unfortunate that the government of Japan is not joining other nations in setting net-zero goals to address the true urgency of our climate crisis,” says Takejiro Sueyoshi, a representative of JCI.
JCI members can proactively contribute toward closing the gap between the government’s goals and its accomplishments—and can work together to engage the government and public and advocate for stronger policies that can enable Japan to decarbonize faster, says Mariana Panuncio-Feldman, senior director of international climate cooperation for WWF and global coordinator for ACA. JCI’s diverse players—including businesses, academic institutions, and regional and local governments—represent Main Street, the economic and social anchors of society. “As key parts of the economy and the political process," adds Panuncio-Feldman, “they have the power to raise their voices, drive the broader political and policy transition, and deliver emissions reductions.”
ACA seeks to amplify those voices by helping alliances like JCI champion climate action in ways that are locally relevant. As they learn from one another and grow internationally, ACA members are becoming “the face of the new zero-carbon economy” in their respective countries, adds Panuncio-Feldman.
Each participant sets an example through its own actions, she explains, gradually shifting the conversation about climate change. In Mexico, ACA is fostering climate leadership on issues such as renewable energy, waste, and nature-based solutions for urban resilience. In the United States, We Are Still In has played a major role in shoring up international confidence in the commitment of American companies, cities, and others to addressing climate change, driving further action, and fostering collaboration.
“By working together, and with their national governments, these alliances can be the force that speeds the change the world urgently needs,” says Nik Sekhran, WWF-US chief conservation officer.
On a rain-soaked summer morning at Kougenji Temple, Hori straightens his embroidered Buddhist stole as he recounts the terror of a nearby landslide. The sound of mud and trees pummeling down the mountainside haunts him at night, he says, fingering his amber prayer beads.
Flooding in Kagoshima, extreme heat in Kyoto, diminished beaches along the Pacific coast, landslides in Okayama—these are the disasters driving climate activists throughout Japan.
For Teisuke Suzuki, vice president of fish cake company and JCI member Suzuhiro Kamaboko, what began with an uneasy awareness of declining fisheries climaxed with the 2011 tsunami on Japan’s northeast coast—an event that triggered the release of radionuclides at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. A dapper man with carefully combed black hair, Suzuki, who loved eating yellow-tail tuna in his childhood, realized major environmental changes were occurring when the catch of yellowtail off the Odawara coast, 50 miles south of Tokyo, plummeted dramatically over the course of 50 years. But he was stunned when the Daiichi accident and closure of nuclear power plants across the country plunged his company into frequent blackouts, threatening to shut down Kamaboko production.
“I believed we could have electricity anytime. I never thought beyond the plug,” says Suzuki.
Shocked into broadening his professional focus to include energy issues, Suzuki persuaded 38 local business owners, entrepreneurs, and community organizations to contribute to a company that would provide regional renewable energy. They formed Houtoku Energy, a JCI member named for a 19th-century movement emphasizing the ethic of cooperation and mutual help.
Houtoku’s electricity comes from solar power, and it provides new energy to a company, Shonan Power, that distributes it through a group called the Energy Consortium of Hakone and Odawara. Shonan contributes 1% of its profits to local community uses that include providing solar panels to schools. Now, renewable energy and community involvement are part of what makes his kamaboko taste so good, says Suzuki. “The fish for kamaboko-making need not only healthy seas but also healthy forests and rivers to thrive,” he says. “My business connects me to the whole world.”
Despite the enormous diversity of size and purpose among JCI members, they share a deep cultural commitment to repaying debts to fellow citizens, parents, ancestors—and to nature.
Part Buddhist influence, part Shinto, this profound sense of reciprocity drives the pledges of many JCI members to reduce their carbon footprints and restore the natural resources that supply their businesses.
Take for example Sekisui House, one of Japan’s largest homebuilding companies and a leader in sustainability. The care that goes into each Sekisui house reflects a culture in which people think of their house as a legacy, says Kenichi Ishida, managing officer of the Osaka-based company. Miwa Haishima and her husband own a Sekisui house in a quiet neighborhood in Saitama City, a suburb north of Tokyo. It looks like nearby two-story homes, white-walled and tidy, with an overhang for parking bicycles; inside, it is appealingly spare. What distinguishes the Haishima house is its heated floors, heavily insulated ceiling and windows, and integrated solar roof tiles, which produce almost as much energy as the house consumes. Haishima uses a handheld online control panel to monitor energy usage room by room, often gleaning clues about which son is playing video games upstairs.
Today 79% of Sekisui’s newly built houses are zero-net energy. “Japan needs more efforts—and more action from its government—when it comes to climate change,” says Ishida. “We cannot rely just on the goodwill and efforts of people.”
Whether in Japan, Argentina, Mexico, or the US, climate activists agree that national governments must enact policies to help mainstream progressive measures at the scale and speed that are needed.
It’s a hopeful sign that more and more Japanese companies are pledging to generate 100% of their electricity from renewable sources, says Shin Furuno, Asia finance senior campaigner with the environmental organization 350.org. Still, their efforts so far are short of the ambitious measures needed. “What is missing now,” Furuno says, “is not the financial or technical capability, but political will.”
Like all alliances for climate action, JCI aims to muster a collective voice loud enough to reach the national politicians who signed the Paris Agreement. While the coalition is still nascent, its combination of market-driven business savvy, diversity of voices, and national grounding is promising and inspiring, says Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice. “We’re in an extraordinary cultural moment, and these coalitions are doing something unprecedented,” he says.
Erika Abiko, owner of Hachidori-sha (Hummingbird) Café, has joined the call for a climate-safe future as well. Her second-floor restaurant is a short walk from the Atomic Bomb (Genbaku) Dome memorializing the 1945 nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, and Abiko, a self-described “action-maker,” uses the space to invite conversations about war, peace, and the environment. During one such recent conversation, she learned about Tera Energy and signed up immediately; renewable energy now powers her air conditioner and refrigerators.
Abiko says she chose the name of her café from an allegorical story about a hummingbird trying to put out a forest fire by carrying one drop of water at a time. Mocked by other animals, the tiny bird replied that it was doing what it could.
“What I do is not a lot,” she says, “but it’s what I can do.”
This sense of optimism and shared responsibility is the spirit that inspires Alliances for Climate Action around the world. As JCI members embark on the challenge of building a zero-carbon, climate-resilient world, their promise to support one another is carrying the Buddhist monks’ chorus across Japan and beyond, one chant at a time.
Alliances for Climate Action
Clockwise from top left: Japan, the US, Argentina, and Mexico are leading the way in forming Alliances for Climate Action, inspiring other countries to do the same.
Today, there is a major gap between the main goal of the Paris Agreement—limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C—and the commitments countries have put forward to meet that goal. Action by businesses and local leaders around the globe has the potential to cut this gap in half.
Through Alliances for Climate Action (ACA), WWF, six global partners—C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, CDP, the Climate Action Network, Fundación Avina, The Climate Group, and the We Mean Business coalition—and leading national organizations are supporting national coalitions of climate leaders. These actors pledge to collaborate with one another to reduce their own carbon footprints and help their national governments deliver on and enhance their climate pledges. Coalitions include businesses, investors, state and local governments, universities, cultural institutions, and civil society.
ACAs have been established in Argentina, Japan, Mexico, and the United States. Vietnam and South Africa joined most recently, in August and September 2019, respectively, and more countries are taking steps toward forming their own domestic alliances.
ACA and its member alliances have received support from funders including Bloomberg Philanthropies, the ClimateWorks Foundation, the Hollomon Price Foundation, the Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust, NextGen, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. ACA also works in close partnership with the Stanley Foundation.