Japan automakers take the hard road

Nikkei -- Oct 31
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida seized a motoring metaphor earlier this month when he pledged to make the fight against global heating an "engine for economic growth." But one of the biggest brakes on his ambitions may be the country's powerful carmakers.

The government's pledge to make the nation carbon neutral by 2050, reaffirmed by Kishida, has come under fire all year from the auto sector. Figures including Akio Toyoda, head of the industry lobby group as well as the president of the world's largest car manufacturer Toyota Motor, question how the target will be achieved. While acknowledging the need for carbon neutrality, Toyoda issued a stark political warning that seemed to clash with the COP26 goal of speeding up the switch to electric vehicles (EVs).

Japan should not narrow its focus solely to EVs, but rather "search for options that suit Japanese circumstances," he said at a news conference hosted by the auto lobby in September. That was a rebuff to the official aim of a rapid transition to electric-powered vehicles and an end to sales of new gasoline-only vehicles by 2035. "In carbon neutrality, our enemy is carbon -- not the internal combustion engine," Toyoda added.

Toyoda may be unusually outspoken for a Japanese business leader, but he is no outlier. So far, Honda Motor is the only Japanese automaker to announce a complete phaseout of gasoline cars, including hybrids. It has vowed to sell only EVs and fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) by 2040.

Carmakers' reluctance to forsake the combustion engine is not the only trend stymieing the government. Japan's heavy dependence on fossil fuels means that even many electric cars are currently partly produced, and even powered, by burning coal.

What's more, EVs are generally more expensive and have a more limited range per charge than Toyota's Prius-like hybrid vehicles. An EV is also more energy-intensive than a traditional vehicle because of the battery, which requires the extraction and refinement of metals like copper and nickel.

How Japan deals with this motor industry carbon conundrum is of crucial importance, given the country's economic heft and the power of its example in Asia and beyond. In April, the nation revised its target of a 26% carbon emissions cut by 2030 from 2013 levels, its commitment under the 2015 Paris climate accord. Instead, it raised the goal to at least 46%. As of 2019, the latest figures available, it had managed a reduction of 14%.

In 2030, renewable energy is to account for 36% to 38% of Japan's electricity mix under a government plan approved in October. That would be double the 2019 level. But coal will still account for 19%, even as countries such as the U.K. and France have vowed to phase it out altogether. ...continue reading