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One of the potential silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is the “green recovery” — a worldwide movement to extend social tendencies that address climate change into the post-COVID world. Environmental groups are closely watching governments to see how they approach the matter, and, so far, Japan seems to be falling behind other developed economies, despite Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi’s attempt to consolidate the movement online.

Former trade ministry bureaucrat and frequent administration critic Shigeaki Koga brought up the matter in the Sept. 4 issue of Shukan Asahi, where he warned that if things go the way they usually do, the government will likely address the recovery as another opportunity to prop up key industries without doing anything constructive about global warming. He mentions an article in Japan’s financial daily, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, in which Akira Amari, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s tax panel chief, talked about maintaining government support for “eco cars” after the pandemic. The subsidies and tax cuts for purchases of passenger vehicles that emit less carbon may not actually do much to cut emissions because they include cars that use gasoline and diesel fuel. Such measures, Koga says, should be limited to electric vehicles and hydrogen cars.

Koga points out that even hybrid vehicles, once the shining stars of the eco car movement, are no longer considered such, and most countries that are serious about cutting emissions only provide incentives for purchases of electric vehicles. France and Germany are desperately trying to manage the economic problems brought on by the coronavirus, but are still looking to the future in terms of mitigating the effects of climate change. Amari, however, sees Japan’s automotive industry as essential to the country’s recovery and thus in need of government support without restrictions. Japan, Koga argues, props up ailing industries with money and no real vision for meaningful change.

Coincidentally or not, Honda Motor Co., Ltd. on Aug. 27 announced that its first mass-produced electric model, the Honda e, would go on sale in Japan at the end of October. The Asahi Shimbun pointed out that the development of electric vehicles in the world has been heavily influenced by environmental regulations, which means if Japanese automakers want to be competitive in Europe, they have to sell electric vehicles.

The Honda e seems to fit that scenario, but the marketing plan in Japan isn’t very ambitious. The target for the car, which can travel up to 283 kilometers on a full charge, is relatively well-to-do families who already own a car. It’s designed for “city use,” meaning short trips on narrow streets. The main sales point is its high-tech features, such as automatic parking and five displays (no side mirrors). The starting price, including tax, is ¥4.51 million, which practically places it in the luxury car class. Honda, in fact, only expects to sell about 1,000 a year in Japan.

Europe is strengthening its car-based environmental regulations starting this year, and even China is ramping up its rules. Japanese manufacturers plan to meet these challenges with new electric models in addition to the Honda e, which is actually designed with the European market in mind. Genuine electric vehicles aren’t popular in Japan. Only 21,281 were sold nationwide last year, representing about 1 percent of the sales of hybrids and plug-in hybrids, which are also electric but still rely on gasoline or diesel fuel.

Only 21,281 electric vehicles were sold nationwide last year, representing about 1 percent of the sales of hybrids and plug-in hybrids, which are also electric but still rely on gasoline or diesel fuel. | GETTY IMAGES
Only 21,281 electric vehicles were sold nationwide last year, representing about 1 percent of the sales of hybrids and plug-in hybrids, which are also electric but still rely on gasoline or diesel fuel. | GETTY IMAGES

Japanese automakers are capable of making electric cars that meet foreign standards but don’t see the point in trying to sell them in Japan. One economic research center told the Asahi Shimbun that electric vehicles are not profitable here. In contrast, South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. and its subsidiary Kia Motors Corp. are aggressively selling electric vehicles both at home and abroad. They have become major world players in the field while also promoting electric vehicles in their own country in response to calls for greater environmental responsibility.

The issue of electric vehicles shows how the Japanese media separates coverage of environmental issues from coverage of business matters, especially with regard to the coronavirus crisis. In an interview with Toyo Keizai, Takejiro Sueyoshi of the Japan Climate Initiative, which formed in 2018 to achieve a zero-carbon society in Japan, bemoans the fact that the climate and coronavirus crises are not addressed simultaneously. After all, they both sprang from the effects of human civilization on nature. He predicts that Japan’s divergence with the rest of the developed world in terms of climate change policy will continue to widen. Even worse, Japanese companies and local governments that are actively trying to tackle the problem are being discouraged by the central government, which thinks such activities hurt growth, when, in actuality, they could promote growth if undertaken properly.

Still, Sueyoshi has hope. Unlike the U.S., Japan is still a part of the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and, while Japan hasn’t shown as much progress in that area, the government hasn’t explicitly rejected the agreement’s goals.

One problem may be the lack of will to coordinate a response. Koizumi, at least, has tried to make a go of his pledge to address climate change. In addition to providing a forum for discussion of green recovery policies, he recently tried to expand the idea of “meatless Mondays,” a campaign to get people to cut back on their consumption of meat, whose mass production methods contribute to climate change. When Koizumi tried to promote an award-winning organization that works toward curtailing meat consumption, he was met with pushback from the agriculture ministry, which oversees the livestock industry and said such a message was “too strong” right now, presumably a reference to the current pandemic’s effect on consumption. However, now is probably the perfect time to act, since people are actively questioning their consumption habits as they spend more time at home, anxious about the future.

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