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In his first policy speech as prime minister last October, Yoshihide Suga pledged to reduce Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, thus giving substance to the government’s goal of eliminating the need for fossil fuels in the latter half of the 21st century. Part of that goal is to ban new internal combustion engine cars by the mid-2030s, a pledge addressed by Akio Toyoda, the president of what is now the world’s No. 1 automaker, Toyota Motor Corp., and chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, during a Dec. 17 online news conference he held under the latter capacity. Toyoda derided the government policy as being ill-informed and unrealistic. At the same time, he castigated the press for glorifying electric vehicles as a main instrument for achieving carbon neutrality.

Toyoda said he had met with association members and they agreed to help Suga achieve his policy goals, but added that without “epoch-making technological breakthroughs,” such goals cannot be reached, so the government must work with manufacturers “as they do in Europe and China.”

After pointing out that Japan’s auto industry had cut vehicular CO2 emissions by 22% and increased fuel mileage by 71% between 2001 and 2018, he said that increased dependence on electric vehicles will not solve the emissions problem. Instead, it will simply move that problem into the realm of electric power generation because of the amount of extra electricity needed to operate and make electric vehicles.

Toyoda estimates that if 4 million cars on the road, approximately the number sold in Japan in the average year, were electric vehicles, then Japan would need to increase its power output by 10% to 15% — the equivalent of 20 thermal or 10 nuclear power stations — and since fossil fuels account for 77% of power generation in Japan right now, there wouldn’t be any net drop in emissions unless more renewable and nuclear power generation facilities were put online. There is also the cost of providing sufficient infrastructure — an estimated ¥14-37 trillion to build recharging stations and ¥100,000 to ¥200,000 for each home charging facility.

Manufacturing electric vehicles will also produce more emissions because the process requires more electricity. In order to check and inspect electric vehicles, Toyoda estimates that 5,000 houses’ worth of electricity would be used in factories to test new cars each day, thus placing an even greater strain on Japan’s power capacity.

As for the media’s role in all this, Toyoda bristles at the notion that electric vehicles are somehow superior to hybrids in terms of CO2 emissions. Although non-plugin hybrids, which alternate between electrical and gasoline motors, use fossil fuels, they produce their own electricity, thus obviating the need to recharge from the power grid.

Toyoda was ostensibly talking on behalf of other domestic automakers, some of which already make or are planning to make electric vehicles, but Japan is not as prepared for electric vehicle dominance as China, Europe and the United States are, so the industry needs government assistance to realize the government’s goals. Toyota itself only makes one electric model, a lease-only single-person vehicle, though it is the world leader in hybrids, which have lost traction to electric vehicles in the affections of environmentalists. Toyoda was also vehement about the harm an electric vehicle-centered transportation model could do to Japan’s manufacturing base. Electric vehicles require fewer parts than fuel-powered cars or hybrids, meaning less work for parts and materials suppliers, which employ up to 400,000 people in Japan.

A December broadcast on Abema News attempted to decipher the news conference for laypersons. Internet entrepreneur Hiroyuki Nishimura, who basically agreed with Toyoda’s assessment, said that some Japanese car companies make most of their money abroad, so if electric vehicles are already considered the future overseas then those companies will aggressively pursue them. Prices for electric vehicles have come down in recent years in Europe and China, and electric vehicle pioneer Tesla’s net worth is greater than that of all Japan’s carmakers except Toyota combined, so the problems Toyoda was talking about only apply to the Japanese market, and Japanese consumers so far have shown little interest in electric vehicles. The industry needs the government to guarantee more charging facilities before they can even hope to sell electric vehicles here.

Toyota also makes most of its money abroad, and staked its carbon-busting future on hybrids and hydrogen fuel technology. However, Toyota is still heavily invested in sales of gas-guzzling SUVs, which have been so popular in the recent past that the record fine imposed on the company by the U.S. government earlier this month for lying about emissions sounds like a normal business expense.

In making the case for other Japanese carmakers, Toyoda also said that the government’s carbon neutral plans don’t properly take into account the prominence of gasoline-powered mini-cars, whose affordability and smaller size make them vital tools for people who live in areas where public transportation has been declining due to privatization and dwindling ridership. Toyoda said that 85% of Japanese roads are only big enough for minicars, and in certain areas they are considered “lifelines.” Minicars must be part of the mix of transportation options, and he once again berated the press for characterizing all gasoline-powered cars as being inherently bad.

Besides being self-serving, Toyoda’s remarks imply that the government does not have a detailed carbon neutral scheme for transportation. All they have is a deadline. Toyoda’s views are premised on the idea that Japanese society is dependent on private car ownership. He said nothing about increasing or maintaining public transportation. Any plan for reducing Japan’s carbon footprint should fortify transportation services in places where such services are scarce or unavailable. After all, the government is providing ¥3 trillion in loans for the maglev super express train between Tokyo and Osaka, a project whose benefits are speculative. Think of how many regional train lines it could sustain — or taxi, car sharing and ride sharing services it could subsidize — with that kind of money.

See www.philipbrasor.com for addenda to Media Mix contributions.

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