Japan’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2050 is beginning to take shape as the government targets the nation’s biggest business: the automotive industry.

Decarbonization demands fundamental change in almost every industry and banning the sale of new gasoline-powered automobiles by the mid-2030s is the central government’s first major step toward achieving that goal.

But the scope, impact and intent of the climate plan are dubious, experts say, since it won’t ban hybrid vehicles nor does it promote or subsidize green electricity production.

The absence of several key elements in the government’s pledge make for a plan with “loose expectations” that is unlikely to spark change in the auto industry, said Teruyuki Ohno, director of the Renewable Energy Institute.

As part of the plan, the government will phase out the sale of new gasoline-powered commercial and passenger vehicles — and possibly motorcycles, according to trade ministry officials — by the first half of the 2030s.

Akio Toyoda | KYODO
Akio Toyoda | KYODO

The move represents a significant shift in the country’s stance, since the government had previously said in 2010 that by the mid-2030s it would reduce the share of gasoline automobiles on the market to between 30% and 50%, environmentally friendly vehicles accounting for the rest.

The omission of hybrid vehicles from the ban, however, drew criticism that the government was appeasing automakers.

European countries like the U.K. and Denmark, among others, are looking to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars starting in 2030 and hybrid cars from 2035.

Decades ago, Ohno explained, Japanese carmakers began building their status largely by honoring industry regulations — including restrictions on toxic waste and air pollution — more closely than companies in other parts of the world.

“But that was decades ago, and those companies have fallen behind on climate regulations and emission reductions,” he said. “This is a chance for them to regain dominance. At least, it was.”

But carmakers are upset that they are being singled out in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corp. and chair of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, was especially doubtful that shifting to electric cars is the answer.

In a meeting with reporters in mid-December, a few days after reports emerged of the government’s plan to ban new sales of gasoline-powered cars, Toyoda released an estimate showing that if, for instance, around 62 million vehicles were swapped for electric-powered cars, the nation would need to increase electricity output by 10% to 15%.

That is equivalent to 10 nuclear reactors, or 20 thermal power plants, Toyoda was quoted as saying by Response, an online media outlet.

About 4 million passenger cars are sold in Japan annually.

Toyoda urged the government to create a comprehensive strategy to increase electricity production, saying automakers alone cannot make the change.

If the government does not draft such a strategy, “the automobile industry’s business model — creating jobs and paying taxes by manufacturing cars — will collapse,” he said.

According to the trade ministry, in 2018 electricity production accounted for 37% of the country’s carbon emissions, while 25% came from manufacturing, 17% from transportation and 10% from households and businesses.

The trade ministry’s economic growth plan released in late December provided a roadmap of the country’s plan to shepherd its economy away from fossil fuels, and foster growth in green energy industries to bring within reach Suga’s pledge for Japan to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Still, questions remain concerning the country’s willingness to overhaul the world’s third-largest economy, slash harmful greenhouse gas emissions and curtail global warming.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has said the capital will ban the sales of new gasoline cars by 2030. | BLOOMBERG
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has said the capital will ban the sales of new gasoline cars by 2030. | BLOOMBERG

Climate advocates say Japan, the world’s fifth largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and Tokyo — the nation’s top polluter and consumer of fossil fuels — have a responsibility to lead the charge.

Change in the capital, they say, could inspire change nationwide.

In December, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike announced a nearly identical plan to that of the central government, except that the capital aims to ban new sales of gasoline cars sooner, by 2030.

“Tokyo has and will continue to lead the country’s efforts to reduce harmful emissions,” Koike said during an interview on Dec. 23. “By setting ambitious goals, the capital can push the country forward.”

Environmental nonprofit organizations say Suga’s climate plan is preoccupied with economic growth, relies on carbon recycling — a technology they say is still entirely experimental — and fails to make the push necessary to inspire the private sector to create jobs by investing in expanding green energy industries.

The Climate Action Network said in a statement released on Dec. 25 that Suga’s pledge deserves praise for recognizing decarbonization as an opportunity for economic growth, acknowledging the need for a new business model in several industries and setting out to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“However,” the statement went on. “The plan fails to confront these issues in the context of the climate crisis, nor does it present a vision of what Japanese society could look like in 2050.”

If Suga wants to achieve the 2050 goal, changes in business models in key industries are inevitable. And inertia from industry giants unwilling to make such a drastic shift in such a short period of time is and will continue to be one of the biggest hurdles.

But experts say the world began shifting toward renewable energy years ago, and so long as Japan’s private sector keeps their feet planted firmly in the fossil field industry, the country’s economy will fall behind.

“The automotive industry will become carbon neutral,” Ohno said. “It’s inevitable. The question is how soon, and how effectively, Japan’s private sector embraces the coming change.”

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