We have recently witnessed a flurry of meetings between diplomats, politicians and grey-haired scholars from across Asia to discuss climate change, the environment, the financial crisis and energy challenges in anticipation of the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change. Yet the individuals we see on TV will not be in this world in 2040 to experience a possible worst-case scenario.
In August of 2009, a small group of young people from China, Japan and Korea gathered for their own climate conference in Daejeon, Korea. They were joined by fellow students from Uzbekistan, Bangladesh and a few older people too as they traded their ideas as to how they could help find solutions to the current crisis.
This meeting was above all an attempt to start a real dialog on climate and the environment between peers across Asia, and to formulate a roadmap for cooperation between young people to address the challenges that lie ahead. The goal of the event was to move] beyond a general idea of international cooperation among students to actual exchange of strategies for changing cultures and habits.
On August 18, 2009, three intrepid students from Tsukuba University in Japan flew to Korea, a neighboring country they had never visited, to meet a group of Korean and Chinese students they had never met. The event was dubbed the first international 3E Cafe and it took place in the Daedeok Valley, Korea’s premiere science and technology cluster, and a sister science park to Japan’s Tsukuba cluster. The three Japanese were Kumagai Gen and Sato Chie, graduate students in environmental sciences, and Yamamoto Yasuhiro, a senior in international relations, all active members of the original 3E Cafe in Tsukuba.
3E refers to environment, energy and the economy, the three intertwined factors that increasingly dominate the discourse about the future of our society. The 3E Café has been in existence in Tsukuba for the last two years as an open forum in which students, businessmen and a variety of citizens from Tsukuba gather together to talk about the 3E and formulate concrete ideas as to how the challenges of the environment, energy and economy can be addressed at the local level. The 3E Café demands that participants consider how they can contribute to balancing the 3E in society, and imagine a synergetic “low-carbon” society. So far in Tsukuba, 3E Café has brought together people from the community who would otherwise not work together in Tsukuba. The concept of the 3E Café has been bouncing around in Korea and China for some time, but this was the first actual meeting.
The Japanese students were met at Daejeon and greeted by MBA students Hu Die of China and Ali Zulfiquar of Bangladesh, at the SolBridge International School of Business, and quickly settled into a discussion of how they might cooperate internationally. They were then escorted to their rooms at the Daedeok Innopolis headquarters for the evening.
The following day was a busy one. In the morning the students gathered at the Korea Institute for Energy Research (KIER) for a tour of their projects in solar energy and hydrogen fuel. After that introduction to the actual technologies being developed to address energy issues, the Japanese group gave a short presentation about the activities of the 3E Café which was followed by a debate on the appropriate first step towards an international 3E Café. The participants agreed on the goal, but differences in perception soon emerged. Whereas the Japanese team began with a focus on what average citizens can do to protect the environment, Ali Zulfiquar from Bangladesh raised questions as to the commitment of developed nations to aid developing nations in their struggle to respond to their disproportional exposure to climate change. He also brought up the question of intellectual property rights and whether they are more important than supplying the necessary technologies as cheaply as possible. The participants from Korea and Japan had to expand their conversation to include a global prospective of the economic factors behind the environment.
Kumagai Gen of the team from Tsukuba Japan was pleased with the intimacy established between students from China, Japan, Korea and elsewhere through this shared experience. “The time we had was brief,” he remarked, “but we had a very precious chance to engage with our peers from other.” Gen continued: “Simply put, witnessing children from around the world struggling to express their concerns gave me a true understanding of just how fervently youth around the world want to save the environment. Here, for the first time, we heard their voices and felt, at some deep level, encouraged.”
The 3E Café members then traveled to the Korea Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology for a discussion of water and agriculture led by Dr. Kwak Sang-soo, Korea’s leading expert on the use of genetically modified sweet potatoes to stop the spread of deserts in China and Mongolia. Dr. Kwak is at the center of several transnational networks of experts prepared to address environmental issues through agricultural innovation across Asia.
The selection of Daejeon, Korea, as the site for the international 3E Café was not an accident. Daejeon was at that very moment playing host to the United Nations Environment Programme’s Tunza Conference 2009, the largest gathering in history of young people from around the world to discuss environmental issues. Previously the Tunza Conference had been split between two gatherings: children 12-15 and youth 16-24. This year, anticipating the upcoming Copenhagen Conference, the two groups were combined for an unprecedented group of almost 1,000 youth from 110 countries whose enthusiasm spilled over into the 3E Cafe’s activities.
The Tunza Conference produced a statement, “Listen to our Voices” that is being circulated around the world to be signed by youth demanding a radical restructuring of the economy and strict regulations on pollution. To read the statement, visit http://www.unep.org/PDF/PressReleases/Final_Youth_Statement.pdf.
Sato Chie of the original 3E Café from Tsukuba expressed her feelings about the 3E Café: “In this conference, a lot of children came to know their own power and we could see that in their statements. Witnessing the passion of these children was inspiring. I came away thinking to myself, ‘I must do something.'”
The 3E Café retreated to the sleek headquarters of the Daedeok Innopolis research cluster on the saultry evening of August 19after the Tunza Conference’s presentations had concluded. They gathered around a table on the second floor and were joined by a member of the Tunza Conference’s Chinese delegation and other members of the Korean and international community of Daejeon.
The 3E Café played host to an advocate of sustainable development from a previous era: Richard Register. As President of Ecocity Builders, Register is the premier advocate for ecocities in the world. Register coined the term “ecocity” back in the 1970s when he started his work with Paolo Soleri, the Italian visionary who fought valiantly for sustainable communities in an age of little popular support. An animated man with straight grey hair, a tieless blue shirt and a manner of speech which is both sharp and yet tolerant of diverse opinions, Register speaks with an authoritative but smooth voice that wins over the audience. He has spent a lifetime trying to change how people in the United States think about urban spaces. Now his annual Ecocity World Summit is drawing increasing attention. The summit will open in Istanbul in December, 2009, bringing together planners of ecocities from around the world.
In contrast to the abstractions that make up much of the debate on climate change, Register presented images he had drawn of a carless city replete with trees. He described how the urban space can be re-invented, reducing the negative impact of humans on the environment by starting from human’s most significant impingement on the ecosystem: cities.
Register then engaged in very intense and affectionate discussions with the younger members of the 3E Café about what concrete steps should be taken to establish ecocities in this age. Register is an artist by temperament and showed many examples of his own sketches of possible ecocities in his presentation.
The students from Tsukuba then described their own activities in Japan, led by Yamamoto and Kumagai who spoke in a confident, but careful, manner about their success in bringing together a wide range of individuals in civil society to join their discussions. The students from KAIST then presented some of their eco-business projects, including a board game resembling Monopoly that can help people to understand the full implications of environmental change. One of those students, Dong Hyun Kim, stressed the importance of innovation in communities to respond to climate change.
Although the 3E Café and the UNEP conference are over, in the minds and in the late night e-mails exchanged between the participants it continues. The Tsukuba contingent has been busy coming up with strategies for continuing the international dialog – a video conference is planned for later in September between students in Korea, Japan and China for a continuing discussion. The hope expressed by the students of the 3E Café is that students and ordinary citizens, and even an occasional policy maker and environmental expert, will join the discussion from around the world.
All in all, the conference provided new insights on environmental issues for all involved. As one Chinese student put it, the discussion here “has subtly reshaped our vision of the world.” She concluded with an enjoinder: “Let us try to make it more beautiful.”