“It was said that we had the worst air pollution in Japan. We had a sky that was like a smoke-coloured rainbow,” recalls Kenji Kitahashi, mayor of the city of Kitakyushu. In the 1960s, industrial development created severe environmental degradation but, since then, the introduction of strong environmental policies and environmentally sound technologies has enabled the city to decouple economic and industrial growth from pollution. Kitakyushu has become a well- functioning, state-of-the-art eco-town.
The success of the city’s many initiatives and measures, of which the eco-town project is just one, have been recognized in Japan and abroad. Kitakyushu won the Japan Environment Agency Award in 1987, and, in 1990, the city was awarded a Global 500 Award by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in recognition of the “organized efforts among local government industries, universities and the public” to reduce industrial pollution. In 2011, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development listed Kitakyushu as a “green growth model city”.
Environmental problems resulting from mass production and consumption have become a worldwide issue, and that is why, for more than thirty years, the city of Kitakyushu has been attempting to disseminate its knowledge to other countries. As part of this effort, in 2010, Kitakyushu joined forces with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to promote green industry throughout the world. In this context, in May 2013, the mayor of Kitakyushu, Kenji Kitahashi and the Director General of UNIDO, renewed cooperation by signing a three-year Memorandum of Understanding which includes an agreement to hold joint seminars for eco-town managers to pass on essential know-how about the environmental industry management of the industrial zones and industrial estates.
Each year, 12 administrative officers from developing countries in Asia and Africa attend the seminars which focus on the Kitakyushu model and how to replicate its best practices. In accordance with their national policy and with the support of experts from Kitakyushu, the trainees produce a planning document to implement a pilot eco-town project as a first step for a national strategy. The seminars cover legal, policy development and financing aspects.
On the occasion of the signing ceremony in Vienna, Mayor Kenji Kitahashi talked about the city’s eco-town model and the challenges of promoting the development of green industry. “Kitakyushu has an extensive experience in international cooperation. As it is geographically close to other Asian nations, it is a mayor connection point between Japan and the rest of Asia,” explained Kitahashi. To create a focal point for the dissemination of environmental technologies, in 2010 the city authorities founded the Kitakyushu Asian Center for Low Carbon Society.
UNIDO also cooperates with Kitakyushu in organizing fact-finding missions. While in Vienna, Kitahashi introduced the “first fruitful result” of these missions and the seminars: an electronic waste (e-waste) recycling project involving a Kitakyushu-based recycling company and a counterpart in India. E-waste that would otherwise be treated by the informal sector in India will now be exported to Kitakyushu for proper recycling. “Setting up this deal was a difficult process, because it needed to meet the requirements of the Basel Convention (for Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposals). It was only possible because many administrative officers from transit countries also attended the seminars and know about the importance of Kitakyushu’s recycling technologies,” explained Kitahashi.
As of 2012, less than five per cent of India's total e-waste was recycled. According to Kitahashi, smelting companies still need some years to develop the appropriate method of extracting rare materials from printed circuit boards and, in the meantime, the treatment of this e-waste in Japan will “prevent dangerous processing by the informal sector.”
Taizo Nishikawa, Deputy to the Director General of UNIDO, extended his sincere gratitude to the mayor for giving the presentation at UNIDO. “Kitakyushu and UNIDO share the same vision and have a lot in common. UNIDO welcomes the contribution to meeting our mandate for sustainable development,” Nishikawa stated at the end of the presentation.
Asked how UNIDO could use the eco-town project as a model for developing countries, Kitahashi said it was possible to learn from Kitakyushu’s projects. “We have missions to developing countries, and some of the successful projects are the car recycling projects in Nigeria, e-waste treatment in Russia, and eco-towns in the Philippines and South Africa.” He stressed the importance of creating role models, “If you have a successful model anywhere in Africa, it will be expanded.” Should the attempts not be successful he added, “If you have any problems or failure, come to Kitakyushu, because we have had a lot of trial and error in the past.”
One success story regarding Kitakyushu's efforts to share its experience of greening industry with other countries involves Dalian, the city in Liaoning province in north-eastern China. Dalian city, which includes Lüshunkou (once known as Port Arthur), is one of the most heavily developed industrial areas in China and has suffered from industrial pollution. Since 1979, when Dalian and Kitakyushu became sister cities, the Chinese city has greatly benefitted from an intensive exchange with the Kitakyushu authorities. The pollution situation improved so much that, in 2001, Dalian was also presented with a UNEP Global 500 Award.
Present during Mayor Kitahashi's presentation in Vienna, GUO Dong, a UNIDO employee born and brought up in Dalian, was amazed to learn about the environmental collaboration between her hometown and Kitakyushu. “When I saw the pictures of my hometown in the presentation today, I thought, ‘Wow, Kitakyushu has really achieved something for my city!’” said GUO, who, having worked abroad for many years, had been unaware of the impact.
GUO visited Dalian in 2011, and she revealed that air quality had started to deteriorate again. Her remark was confirmed by the Dalian Environmental Protection Agency, which reported that during the first half of 2011, respirable particles in the air increased significantly, with an average 40% higher than in 2010. Media reports suggest that a growing number of family cars is partly to blame.
GUO asked Mayor Kitahashi how Dalian could sustain the earlier improvement, and what Kitakyushu would suggest. Kitahashi responded that environmental problems require long-term attention. “Even if we achieve a first stage, we have a second stage,” he insisted, stressing that Dalian was Kitakyushu's sister town and that, if it wanted support, Kitakyushu would be eager to help.
Asked for the secret of the eco-town model success in his city, Mayor Kitahashi concluded, “Success consists of 90 per cent effort, and 10 per cent luck.”
By Mira Kapfinger
More information about Japan's eco-town programme.
Check out CNN's 2010 video about Kitakyushu.