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Exploring Tokyo as a leader in urban sustainability

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By James Balzer

· 6 min read

Setting the scene: cities as engines for sustainable development 

Cities are increasingly expected to bear the onus of global sustainable development objectives. After all, 75% of global emissions and about 50% of global waste derive from cities. 56% of the world’s population live in cities, and by 2050 almost 70% of the world will live in cities. 

In this context, cities need to become stronger agents of sustainability. There is increasing discussion of city diplomacy as an avenue to develop climate solutions, which signifies cities’ important role in ‘bottom-up’ climate change action, especially at the global level. 

Tokyo is a global finance, culture and tourism hub, with a population of over 14 million people and a Gross Metropolitan Product (GMP) of just over 1.0 trillion USD. Cities of this scale must bear a substantial burden in accomplishing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Luckily, Tokyo has an ambitious sustainability mandate, which presents numerous opportunities for the city. 

Tokyo’s sustainability accomplishments & mandate 

Tokyo has a very rich history of sustainability and resilience - with a clear mandate to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 (under the Zero Emission Tokyo Strategy). 

Consequently, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) has many impressive sustainability credentials. 80’000 Ha of Tokyo are green, natural parks, and the TMG’s per-capita energy, water and waste flows are noticeably lower than the average of peer cities such as Shanghai, New York City, London and Paris. The TMG also initiated the world’s first carbon cap and trade scheme at the city level, encompassing both the commercial and industrial sectors. This is imperative in reducing urban emissions. 

In addition, Tokyo has many admirable sustainability objectives. These include various 2030 goals, including: 

  • A 50% emissions reduction goal compared to 2000 levels 

  • A 50% reduction in energy consumption compared to 2000 levels 

  • A 50% renewable energy target 

  • 100% of TMG buildings are powered by renewable energy 

These targets exist alongside the proposed ‘Tokyo eSG’ city - a brand new high-tech, sustainable city based around Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) principles. This new city intends to attract global venture capital and start-up stakeholders who are financing circular economy technologies. Likewise, Tokyo eSG city’s energy needs will be met through hydrogen, wind farms and floating solar panels. 

The opportunity for circular economy and sustainable infrastructure in Tokyo 

Tokyo is a densely built city with many residential and office buildings. Buildings are a major source of emissions, with CO2 emissions accounting for 70% of the total CO2 emissions in Tokyo. 

TMG has been working to reduce CO2 emissions through measures for large-scale office buildings. These include promoting energy efficiency, along with the use of renewable energy, and comprehensive energy management, alongside subsidies for energy conservation retrofits of existing buildings. 

Additionally, the aforementioned cap-and-trade system for large establishments will be strengthened. The TMG are also promoting the use of more sustainable materials, such as wood, with lower embodied carbon

The Tokyo Olympics particularly demonstrated Tokyo's potential as a circular economy and sustainable materials leader. 

Out of the 43 competition venues, only eight were newly constructed. Materials such as the wood for the Olympic Village Plaza were donated by the local government. After the games, the wood was returned and repurposed in other infrastructure projects. Additionally, athletes' beds, constructed from cardboard, were set to be recycled post-Games, including the mattresses, which were repurposed into new plastic items.

Furthermore, according to organisers, around 65,000 electronic devices including computers, tablets, and consumer appliances, along with 19,000 office furniture pieces such as desks and chairs, were used during the Olympics and subsequently repurposed.

Moreover, the concept of reuse was deeply integrated into Tokyo's procurement strategy, with a significant portion of goods being leased or acquired under buy-back agreements with manufacturers. In instances where items could not be leased, organisers collaborated with the TMG to establish resale systems, guaranteeing items had reuse value after the games.

The opportunity for Tokyo as a sustainable finance hub 

A major opportunity for Tokyo is to facilitate sustainable finance - for both its own sustainability objectives, the climate ambitions of Japan and also global climate finance. Tokyo has a vision of becoming Asia’s leading green finance hub.

Tokyo’s ambitions to become a green finance centre are based on bold initiatives, including a TMG fund providing subsidies to foreign asset managers and fintech companies focused on sustainability. In its first year, this fund had 48 applicants from 17 countries

Additionally, Japan's green finance market has experienced significant growth, with domestic green bond issuance increasing by an average of 76.4% annually since 2014, reaching a record US$9.82 billion in 2020. This expansion has been fueled by the government's growth strategy, which emphasises green finance as a critical element. Complementing such, the TMG has launched the Tokyo Green Finance Initiative to create an urban ecosystem conducive to green finance, attracting global players, facilitating business expansion in Tokyo and providing easy access to environmental information and technologies. 

Likewise, Tokyo is emerging as a center for 'transition finance', a concept gaining popularity in Japan. Transition finance entails supplying capital to 'brown' enterprises to invest in emission-reducing technologies while committing to achieving zero emissions eventually. Unlike green finance, which finances renewable energy projects, transition finance aids industries such as steelmaking and chemical production, which heavily rely on fossil fuels and encounter obstacles in transitioning to cleaner alternatives

The opportunity of green energy in Tokyo 

The adoption of solar panels on residential rooftops in Japan has seen a steady increase. In Tokyo, specifically, the installation of solar electricity has surged approximately tenfold between 2008 and 2017, attributed to subsidized initiatives by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) and the enforcement of the Feed-In-Tariff (FIT) Law. Typically, solar power generation systems operate in a connected mode, linking to the main power grid. However, switching to a self-sustained mode allows for electricity usage during power outages or natural disasters when the city's main power supply is disrupted.

Additionally, Hydrogen-based energy presents numerous advantages in making Tokyo more sustainable. These include the availability, affordability, and energy supply diversification, making it a promising option for emergency response scenarios. Technologies like fuel cells and fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) enhance energy efficiency across various sectors, including transportation, residential, commercial, and industrial. Hydrogen's capacity for large-scale and long-term energy storage further enhances its appeal as a renewable clean energy source. The TMG aims to significantly scale up CO2-free hydrogen production and promote its utilization, both domestically and internationally, generated from renewable energy sources.

Promoting local energy production and consumption is essential in preparation for the anticipated widespread adoption of renewable energy. Facilitating local production and consumption of renewable energy, which alleviates strain on the power grid, is crucial for enhancing Tokyo’s local resilience and sustainability in the face of future challenges.


Tokyo stands as a beacon of urban sustainability, showcasing innovative approaches and robust initiatives that address pressing environmental challenges. This is particularly with regard to sustainable materials & the circular economy, sustainable finance and green energy. Across these domains and more, Tokyo exemplifies the potential for cities to lead the charge toward a more sustainable future.  As cities grapple with the urgent need for sustainability, Tokyo's example serves as inspiration and guidance, illustrating the transformative power of collective action in building a greener, more sustainable world.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

James Balzer is an Australian climate and sustainability policy practitioner, with experience in the Australian Federal Government and the New South Wales Government. He has experience in climate and sustainability policy across think tanks, NGOs and social enterprises in Europe, Australia and Southeast Asia.

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