Can Japan innovate to emerge from a climate and energy crisis?

When international delegates gathered in Kyoto at the end of 1997 to work out the final details of a hard-fought climate deal, they were greeted with a note of encouragement by the city’s children. “The people of Kyoto are praying for the success of this conference,” they wrote. “ The future of everyone, especially children, largely depends on the outcome. ”

The children who applauded the Kyoto Protocol are now nearly 30 years old, but Japan, like most of the developed countries that have signed on to it, still struggles to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, Japan’s dependence on fossil fuels is even greater today than it was before the Fukushima nuclear disaster ten years ago.

Japan’s inability to reduce its dependence on coal by pushing harder towards clean solar, hydro, and wind power in the post-Fukushima era has prompted a defensive, albeit specific, response: solar panels, dams, and solar power plants. wind turbines can be difficult to install, given Japan. geography and terrain.

But in December, the tone changed dramatically when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga presented a “green growth strategy” that would lead to Japan’s net emissions drop to zero by 2050.

The plans mentioned extend even beyond the borders of Japan. Suga’s administration may finally announce in April that it will end Japan’s financial support for the construction of new coal-fired power plants in Southeast Asia and other countries, according to a Nikkei report Last week.

Even environmentalists who have criticized government policies are encouraged. “I am very cautiously optimistic,” said Mika Ohbayashi, director of the Renewable Energy Institute. “I have to say Suga-san is more serious about climate change [than Shinzo Abe, his predecessor]. “

Some of the largest Japanese companies, however, were more alarmed than impressed.

One aspect of the green strategy immediately caught the attention of the powerful Japanese auto industry: New gasoline-powered vehicles are to be completely replaced by “electrified” cars by the mid-2030s.

Rare public criticism of the government has come from none other than Akio Toyoda, chairman of Toyota Motor. “The economic model of the automotive industry is in danger of collapsing,” he warned.

One of Toyoda’s main arguments is that Japan won’t be able to generate enough clean electricity to power all cars unless the country is busy building new factories, and quickly. Nuclear power could produce much of this electricity without producing greenhouse gases, but it remained unpopular in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.

Yet despite all the obstacles, some observers see the clean energy push as an opportunity for Japan to regain its reputation as an innovator.

Japan has lagged behind in the digital economy, prompting years to question whether the country has lost its edge. But the nascent green energy tech industry, which requires the kind of advanced technical skills and long-term investments the country is known for, gives new hope. Optimists believe green power could give Japan Inc a new pitch – and a powerful new source of exports.

“The internet, digitization and the app economy have driven innovation over the past 20 years, but they haven’t solved serious problems like global warming,” said Sota Nagano, partner of the capital firm. -risk Abies Ventures, based in Tokyo. “These solutions require something that comes out of a lab – engineering or real science.”

Nagano noted that Japan has been supporting basic research in new materials, robotics and other “deep technologies” for decades through Nedo (Organization for the Development of New Energy and Industrial Technologies), a government agency that subsidizes work on new energies and advanced industrial technologies.

“Now the government is pushing national universities to monetize patents and research in materials, quantum computing and mechanical engineering,” Nagano said. “All of this helps contribute to this green energy plan. Many valuable assets in Japan have yet to be monetized. “

Japan has made two bold long-term bets on green technology. One is its drive to turn hydrogen into a common fuel for cars, trucks and power generation. The other is on a new kind of electric car battery which promises to be much more efficient than the lithium-ion models that power Teslas and other electric vehicles on the road today.

“Hydrogen and solid-state batteries are the areas Japanese companies have focused on as a competitive advantage,” said Kota Yuzawa, Goldman Sachs analyst in Tokyo who tracks the auto industry.

He believes that Japan’s recent green push, in addition to efforts from China and the Biden administration, will quickly accelerate the shift to electric vehicles around the world. Toyota worked on the battery technology known as advanced solid state for over a decade, and it plans to deploy a prototype this year.

Information box: solid-state battery

Solid-state batteries have been the subject of start-ups over the past decade, but cannot yet be produced on a large scale. The cells use a solid electrolyte rather than a liquid, as in most conventional lithium-ion batteries. They also contain a lithium metal anode rather than a graphite anode, which allows the battery to store more energy. The challenges of large-scale production include stability and material costs.

Toyota says its battery can power a 500-mile trip on a single charge, roughly twice the distance of typical electric cars today. The batteries are smaller and do not require any cooling system, which allows more legroom in the car, and are not prone to catching fire as can happen with lithium batteries. Solid-state batteries could also fully charge in 10 minutes.

“It’s more like the time it takes for a gasoline engine to go to the gas station,” Yuzawa said.

There are, however, concerns. The main one is the possibility of sulfur gas leaks, which is poisonous. And the manufacturing cost of solid-state batteries will be higher than lithium batteries until they can be mass-produced.

Although Japan has a strong presence in the electric vehicle battery market – Panasonic makes batteries for Tesla – it is far behind China, which has spared no expense to pursue its ambition to dominate it.

Japan has sought to counter this by encouraging the development of solid-state batteries, which it hopes will eventually become the norm. But the deadlines are long: a viable product is not expected until the second half of this decade.

Much closer is the prospect of cars running on hydrogen, the fuel source that is the cornerstone of Japan’s plan for a carbon-neutral future, but which has major detractors from the auto industry. Toyota introduced the first commercial hydrogen vehicle, the Mirai (“future” in Japanese), in 2014. Mirai’s second model was released in December 2020. The Mirai runs on a non-emitting hydrogen “fuel cell” no CO2 and can be recharged quickly at a bus station.

But hydrogen has the disadvantages of storage and distribution, requiring high pressure, and currently expensive to produce by electrolysis using green energy sources. Tesla founder Elon Musk calls them “dumb cells” and said hydrogen cars are a “dumb” idea, while VW has categorically rejected its prospects for passenger cars.

Even though rival auto industry leaders are right about hydrogen cars, Goldman Sachs’ Yuzawa believes it’s still worth investing in the technology. “When you think of a heavy [cargo] truck, it would have to carry a heavy lithium battery all the way. Hydrogen is therefore a more efficient means of transporting large cargoes over long distances. “

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Ohbayashi believes that hydrogen will have a role to play in reaching the goal of net zero emissions, but that it is more important for the government to focus on renewables such as wind, solar and geothermal energy. At the time of the Fukushima disaster, she notes, renewable energies represented 10% of the Japanese electricity mix. Today it’s about 20%.

“The trend of increasing renewables is very fast,” she said. “If we have the right policies in place, I think renewables can even reach 50% of the country’s electricity needs by 2030 and 100% by 2050. But we need the government to set these high targets. and encourages the market. ”

His view that Japan could be powered entirely by renewables is not widely shared within government or industry, where many are hoping for a revival of the nuclear industry, including Minister of Energy Hiroshi Kajiyama, who told the Financial Times this year that nuclear was essential to meeting its energy goals.

But he captures a renewed sense that Japan, with few clean energy resources, is able to end its dependence on imported fossil fuels.

Along with government and industry commitment to innovative engineering, it also reflects the hope that Kyoto kindergarten children in the late 1990s will see the world they envisioned in the age 60.

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