Eco-towns – the Asian experience

In 2009, seri was tasked to do a pilot project for establishing Eco-towns in Penang. This year, it was the sole representative for Penang at the Seventh Asia-Pacific Eco-Business Forum to discuss urban sustainability.

OPINIONS VARY WHEN it comes to the definition of an Eco-town; essentially, an Eco-town is a township that incorporates environmental protection and management practices in its daily affairs. For example, Kawasaki’s Eco-town concept is mainly based on the material waste-resource cycle. The industrial area was refurnished and improved to facilitate better material waste-resource cycle flow, allowing for better efficiency in the city. Akita Eco-town, on the other hand, prides itself as the recycling hub for electrical and electronic (E&E) waste.

Penang decided to establish an Eco-town within Penang Cyber City, incorporating industrial areas, commercial areas, an education component and residential areas that are ecologically and environmentally sustainable. Eventually, it is also envisaged that the sustainability component can be extended to economic and social life.

The Eco-town boom

In Japan, the initiatives for Eco-towns started as early as in 1997, when the cities of Kawasaki and Kitakyushu volunteered to lead the charge towards greater sustainability. Many factors were thought to contribute to the change, but the largest factors were the heavy pollution from the industries there and the need to comply with new federal laws on environmental protection and sustainability. The main industries in Kawasaki City are the fabrication of steel and concrete. A material waste-resource cycle was also soon established.

As of today, there are 27 registered Eco-towns in Japan, and some have evolved to suit the niche industries of their region. For Kawasaki, the biggest challenge was to ensure that the transformation was in tandem with the development of the steel and cement industry of the City. Over the years, Kawasaki took the lead in developing platforms for the exchange of knowledge, information and technology developments by organising the Kawasaki Eco-Tech Fair and the Asia-Pacific Eco-Business Forums.

The Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute (SERI) first participated in the Asia-Pacific Eco-Business Forum in 2009, which was also when SERI was formally appointed to conduct a pilot project to establish Eco-towns in Penang. The project was sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) International Environmental Technology Centre (UNEP-IETC), and would serve as a model study for Eco-towns outside of Japan.

Participants gather at the Seventh Asia-Pacific Eco- Business Forum.

SERI was Penang’s sole representative at the Seventh Asia-Pacific Eco-Business Forum. The two-day forum, held on February 14–15, 2011 at the Institute of Industrial Promotion, expounded its urban model of sustainability that promotes harmony between environment and the industry. The forum provided a platform for regional experts, city officials, researchers and academics to exchange information about advancements in environmental technology and strategies.

This year, SERI presented a paper on the environmental policies for the whole state of Penang, providing some background on the state’s policies, including the Penang Strategic Development Plan (PSDP) 1 & 2 and the Penang Environmental Conservation Strategy; the transformation towards sustainability began as early as in the PSDP 1 (1991 to 2000). We also highlighted the change from environmental protection to the larger picture of environmental management and sustainable development.

Some follow-up changes over the past year included various campaigns organised by the state and the Cleaner Greener Penang initiative. Several stakeholders have approached the state government and SERI to develop an Eco-village on Penang Hill and an Eco-City in Batu Kawan.

The Korean experience

The participation from various research institutions and international experts opened the perspective of the forum to a wider range of issues. The presentations made by industrialists demonstrated the various improvements made in innovative environmental technology. The forum has evolved from being Kawasaki City-orientated to embracing internationalisation and innovation realisation.

For instance, Prof HS Park, from Ulsan University in South Korea, introduced the transformation of conventional industrial sites in Ulsan into integrated Eco-industrial Parks (EIPs). The EIPs are largely based on material-waste cycling, and distances between the industries can range from a few hundred metres to a few kilometres away. This vastly differs from Japan, where the industries are located close together. Prof Park has also managed to quantify eco-efficiency values for the EIPs and developed a set of environmental indicators that are able to estimate the total economic benefit derived from the transformation.

An electric car on display at the Kawasaki International Eco-tech Fair. The Kawasaki City Council has purchased electric cars for official use.

Green vs. Greed

One pertinent and hotly-debated agenda circulated throughout the two days of the forum was the Green vs. Greed agenda. During the Industrial Revolution, it was considered crucial to solve issues such as poverty, economic development and social development, but environment development ended up being neglected. Since the Earth Summit in 1992, many global industries are slowly changing towards cleaner and greener practises.

Many nations and economic blocs have since adopted sustainable development and green policies. This will force smaller economies and industry places to adapt to the change to survive in the present market force.

But the magnitude of change is not large, especially for many developing countries. In many cases, it is still business as usual.

What’s next for Penang?

Even if the state government should adopt the Ecotown into its agenda, are industry players ready to make this change? Many multinational corporations (MNCs) are embracing the green economy (such as changing towards cleaner production and retrofitting their plants with energy-saving devices), but many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are not as eager, due to the lack of financial benefits and time, and high production costs.

The state is already taking the lead by having campaigns such as Green Citizenship and Green Journalist awards, and should be commended for implementing various initiatives such as No Plastic Day and Cleaner Greener Penang. But are these efforts enough? Is the state ready to provide policy regulations and guidelines that will help raise awareness among the people?

When the stakeholders and community are equipped with information and knowledge, they will be the ones ready to make the change. Everyone in Penang should acknowledge the fact that they are the custodians of its environment and should take great care in preserving and protecting it.

Ben Wismen is a research officer at seri specialising in environmental and sustainability studies, local governance and heritage.



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