January 31, 2007


Report on JFS Seminar for Eco-Products 2006 Your 'Sustainable Future'-- from Visions of Sweden, Bhutan and Japan

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.53 (January 2007)

Japan for Sustainability (JFS) held a seminar titled "Your 'Sustainable Future'" on December 16, 2006, the last day of "Eco-Products 2006," a major exhibition held at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center, or "Tokyo Big Sight." Its aims were to share visions for sustainability as well "indicators" we need to realize a sustainable world, and to introduce initiatives in Sweden and Bhutan as well as attempts by JFS. Sweden is a consistent world leader in terms of sustainability, while Bhutan is attracting much attention for its gross national happiness (GNH) index, an alternative to idea of gross domestic product (GDP). JFS has devoted itself to the development of sustainability indicators in Japan.

Three guest speakers were: Ms. Izumi Tanaka, an environmental specialist from the Science and Technology Office of the Embassy of Sweden in Tokyo; Mr. Shuichi Hirayama, chief executive of the non-profit GNH-STUDY.COM and a specialist of the Japan International Cooperation Agency; and Mr. Hitofumi Yamanoshita, a long-time JFS volunteer and project leader of the JFS sustainability indicators team. Each speaker presented ideas on the visions and strategies of Sweden, Bhutan and Japan, and later discussed the idea of a sustainable future with the audience of about 100 persons.

Strategies on Sustainability in Sweden, an Environmentally Advanced Country

Sweden is a country based on strong social welfare policies and abundant nature, covered with vast forests and blessed with clean air. That's the image many people hold for the country. And it is true that the natural environment plays a significant role in Swedish culture. Sweden ensures people "the right to enjoy nature" so that they can enjoy walking and traveling freely both on public and private lands.

On the topic of sustainability, in 1998 Sweden government announced a vision for sustainable country, titled "Sweden 2021," consistent with its image as a pioneer on initiatives of sustainability. This vision articulates the desired situation for 2021 in nine areas, including agriculture, households and transportation.

In 2002, "Sweden's National Strategy for Sustainable Development 2002" was released. This was an official government document that included not only environmental but also social and economic issues, or what is also called the "triple bottom line." It identifies four strategic issues: building sustainable local communities, promoting equitable healthcare, tackling demographic challenges, and promoting sustainable growth.

How does Sweden measure progress on these issues? The latest report, released in 2005, proposes 12 "headline" sustainability indicators in six categories and reports measures of progress. The six categories are Health, Sustainable Production and Consumption, Economic Development, Social Cohesion, Environment and Climate, and Global Development. The indicators for the Health category, for example, are Life Expectancy and Violence. For Environment and Climate they are Greenhouse Gases and Hazardous Materials.

To develop these indicators, Statistics Sweden, a central government authority for statistics, was commissioned by the then Ministry of Sustainable Development (renamed as the Ministry of the Environment on January 1, 2007) to provide the necessary data. Experts and non-governmental organizations are also involved as members of an advisory group. One of the special features of Sweden's sustainable development indicators is a focus on national trends to get the whole picture, rather than setting numerical targets. Following that line, the aim is to get a clear picture of local and regional trends by 2009.

Meanwhile, as a new cabinet was inaugurated in October 2006, some policy changes may appear in the near future, particularly regarding the country's sustainability policies. It is worth keeping an eye on trends in Sweden, to see what strategies the country will take as a leading nation in the environmental arena.

Bhutan's GNH -Toward a Society Where Everyone Feels Happy

The concept of a "gross national happiness" indicator has been attracting increasing attention recently, but it is not a new idea. In 1976, the term GNH was first used by the former King of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuck while visiting India, answering questions by local journalists.

Bhutan is a Himalayan country with forests covering 72 percent of its land. Contrary to an image of a nature-rich country, its environment is quite harsh. The land is rather arid with a thin layer of soil on bedrock, which hinders plants from spreading their roots deeper under ground. Rapid development is not suitable for the country, as its natural environment can not easily be restored once damaged. Under such circumstances, GNH indicators have been developed in the Bhutan, with the notion of prioritizing basic human needs including sufficient medical care and satisfying work as well as food, clothing, and shelter, instead of accelerating development. In other words, the basic idea of GNH is to seek spiritual wealth rather than material affluence.

So what are the specific goals of GNH? It is not an index to aim only at individual happiness. More importantly, it aims to create a social environment where everybody feels happy. For that purpose, it is first needed to improve social infrastructure to ensure security, safety, and stability. Only when that is ensured can people care about the others, culture and community surrounding them.

Quantifying and generalizing happiness is a major challenge, as "happiness" is a relative concept. Still, the Center for Bhutan Studies and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) have been working together to study and develop numerical values of GNH, aiming to complete their project by March 2007. Nine domains have already been selected as GNH indicators, including Cultural Diversity and Resilience, Emotional Wellbeing, Time Use and Balance, based on its four pillars: Sustainable and Equitable Socio Economic Development, Conservation of the Environment, Preservation and Promotion of Culture, and Good Governance.

Nevertheless, we should note that numerical values are not perfect. We see quite often cases where one numerical value becomes worse, while another improves. In Bhutan, for example, when roads were improved to enhance crop transportation, more young villagers flowed into cities. The number of young people living in the capital city increased, especially those in despair with broken dreams, losing their meaning of lives. Therefore, indicators and numerical targets need to be reviewed constantly. In this regard, GNH is expected to play a greater role in the future of Bhutan, to show fundamental ideas and philosophy to reconsider why and how people live.

JFS Indicators Envisioning a Sustainable Japan in 2050

Japanese ministries and agencies have also set out long-term visions for the whole nation. Some of the recent examples are; "A Vision of Japan in the 21st Century" by the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy in 2005, "Ideal Japan in 2030" by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in 2005 and "Vision for a Virtuous Circle for Environment and Economy in Japan" by the Ministry of the Environment in 2004. Do these long-term visions describe a sustainable future we truly hope for? Do they meet all the criteria for sustainability? To what extent do they represent citizens' voices? It is the government in Sweden and the king in Bhutan that lead the efforts for sustainability in their countries, but in Japan, unfortunately, such comprehensive efforts at the national level are not evident. It is against this backdrop that citizens have been working together to create the JFS Sustainable Indicators.

JFS defines sustainability as follows: "A condition in which humanity respects diversity of life in all its forms, strives to preserve life, nature, livelihoods and culture for future generations, within the carrying capacity of the natural environment, and establishes mutual connections with the purpose of building better societies and seeking the greatest happiness for the greatest number across both time and space." Based on this definition, JFS has developed a vision of Japan in 2050, moving closer towards a sustainable society.

For instance, regarding global warming and resource sustainability, the vision illustrates an ideal society where greenhouse gas emissions per person have been reduced by 80 percent from current levels, the country is 100 percent self-sufficient food and energy, energy efficiency in manufacturing processes is improved, the use of resources and energy is minimized, and the amount of waste per person is reduced to about one third of the current level.

Based on the vision, JFS developed the sustainability indicators to make various efforts toward sustainability visible and to use them as tools to inspire themselves and others. Four areas of sustainability (Nature, Economy, Society and Well-being) were studied from a viewpoint of five basic concepts (Capacity and Resources, Fairness across Time (Intergenerational Equity), Fairness across Space (Geographical Equity), Diversity, and Human Will and Networking (Commitment and Networking). In total, JFS selected a total of 20 headline indicators.

JFS's preliminary calculation showed that Japan's sustainability in 2005 declined by about 19 percent since 1990. Currently JFS is trying to improve the accuracy of calculations by studying the connections between indicators, examining the disparity between the vision and indicators, and examining the possibility of adding sub-indicators. JFS believes that this process will help identify the most important factors to realize sustainability.

In the future, JFS plans to use the indicators as a tool to communicate broadly and as a driver of efforts toward sustainability at the national and local levels.

Returning now to our "Your 'Sustainable Future'" in December, after the presentations of three speakers and after the closing of seminar, participants stayed around to exchange many questions and answers. It might have been the first time in Japan for such a diverse group of people to exchange opinions on the theme. JFS will continue to learn from the efforts in Sweden, Bhutan and other countries and regions, and to exchange opinions with people who are active in each field.

What kind of sustainability vision and indicators does your country or region develop? We would be happy to hear from you.

(Written by Kazuko Kojima)