University spearheads ‘nature positive’ partnership model

As fluctuations in snowfall threaten the regional economy in Sapporo, the capital city of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido known for its snow festival and other snow-related activities, Hokkaido University is spearheading a sustainable growth strategy which envisages a reframing of the environmental crisis into a ‘nature positive’ model for regional development.

The Sapporo Snow Festival is one of Hokkaido’s biggest tourist draws; close to two million people visit the city every February. The island is normally blanketed by snow for almost five months of the year but in 2020 unusually warm weather in Hokkaido forced Sapporo Municipality to reduce the number of ice sculptures due to a lack of snow and ice and the authorities resorted to hauling thousands of tonnes of snow from outside the city.

The Japan Meteorological Agency-reported snowfall for that winter dropped to just 36% of the amount recorded in previous years in northern Japan.

Sapporo will be hosting the Group of Seven (G7) leading economies’ ministerial meeting on climate, energy and the environment from 15-16 April, with global warming and achieving zero carbon emissions top of the agenda.

Japan’s Deputy Environment Minister Tokuya Wada said in a keynote speech at a pre-G7 Summit webinar in March organised by Hokkaido University’s Institute for the Advancement of Sustainability that the Hokkaido region, with its vast expanse of nature – oceans, forests and parks – incorporates the concept of “nature transformation for economic growth”.

This means looking at natural surroundings as a solution and developing new technologies that do not disrupt nature. For example, forest management in Hokkaido is based on forests as a means to reduce carbon dioxide and protecting biodiversity.

Hokkaido University owns 70,000 hectares of experimental forest – one of the largest university-owned forests of its kind anywhere in the world – where it is conducting research into long-term fluctuations in the forest ecosystems that include the impact of climate change on forests, including earlier snow melt.

Clean energy

A particular focus of Hokkaido University’s approach is clean energy. ‘Nature positive’ transformation, or the use of nature for renewable energy technology to reach Japan’s target of a 100% reduction in greenhouse gasses and to increase economic growth has gained the highest political support. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has outlined the goal as a government policy.

Developing clean energy through new technology is also linked to reducing Japan’s reliance on gas imports from Russia, against a backdrop of low self-sufficiency. Japan currently produces only 11% of its energy needs domestically.

“New projects targeting carbon-free goals have been implemented in Hokkaido to foster regional growth. The ventures were possible as a result of the support of a network of researchers working closely with the farming communities and municipalities,” Wada said.

Mayor of Sapporo city Katsuhiro Akimoto explained at the March webinar that joint projects with the university have been launched to raise public awareness and gain grassroots support to achieve zero carbon emissions. Notably, Hokkaido University researchers hold regular seminars for farmers and schools and organise sustainable agriculture events in the city, he said.

President of Hokkaido University Kiyohiro Houkin said during the webinar: “Educating each citizen to change his or her behaviour is crucial to solve climate change. We would like to take this to the G7 environment ministers’ meeting in April in Sapporo.”

“The development of human resources plays a crucial role in sustaining new projects. In addition to research expertise, universities are also important for producing knowledge and students who can be the generators of innovation,” he said, pointing out that sharing university research was crucial in achieving green transition solutions.

Hokkaido University’s research for sustainable development is supported by central and local governments, with funding and policies set by local municipalities.

For example, the university also plays a leading role in projects commissioned by the Ministry of the Environment that include environmental and health programmes which focus, for example, on child health and risk management strategies to ensure awareness around the dangers of chemicals in agriculture or the impact of climate change.

Sustainable energy power plants

Hokkaido is now showcasing the results of its collaboration efforts. For example, there are now 70 biogas power plants operating in Hokkaido, including gas from the dung and urine of dairy cattle. They are operated by farmers, local governments, agricultural cooperatives and businesses.

The power generated is self-consumed or partly sold to the Hokkaido Electric Power Company. Renewable energy projects have also led to new regional investment. A case in point is Naskeo, a leading French biogas company that invested in Naskeo Kankyo KK company in 2019 to start a biogas power plant in partnership with local companies in Tsurui village, Hokkaido.

The project involves research, construction and design aimed at converting organic waste into renewable energy. The university’s research on wind power supports new offshore wind farm projects that are replacing the incomes of fishing communities hit by a slump in commercial fishing that was previously a leading source of revenue.

A rapidly ageing population and demographic decline have hit the agricultural and fishery sector and consequently the country’s food productivity. The population engaged in farm work currently represents less than 2% of the national population. Fish catches in Hokkaido are only about a third of their 1980s peak – another issue linked to climate change.

Hokkaido is surrounded by the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean, with huge potential for generating wind power and it has attracted energy companies to operate wind farms.

The Japan Wind Power Association estimates wind farms will contribute almost JPY15 trillion (US$112.6 billion) to the economy by 2030 and has identified Hokkaido as the main host region, given its favourable conditions for wind harnessing.

Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

At the policy level, Sapporo city in 2020 declared its goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, with measures that include facilitating exchanges and supporting corporations’ and residents’ actions towards achieving this goal.

In November 2022 the northern island was selected as a leading region for decarbonisation. The project, based at Hokkaido University, aims to build a model for industry-government-academic collaboration and is co-sponsored by Hokkaido Gas Co, Hokkaido Heat Supply Corporation, Hokkaido Electric Power Company and NOASTEC (the Northern Advancement Center for Science and Technology).

“Achieving the goal needs support and action at both individual and business levels. The role of Hokkaido University as a partner to provide scientific evidence-based research is critical on this front,” said Akimoto.

Sustainable urban development is now based on expanding energy networks like building the first hydrogen recharging station for large vehicles, introducing solar power and renewable energy plans to businesses.

This is the last in a series of articles on the Sustainable Development Goals in partnership with Japan’s Hokkaido University. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.