Business and Finance

Can Japan innovate its way out of a climate and energy crisis?

When worldwide delegates gathered in Kyoto in late 1997 to hammer out the ultimate particulars of a hard-fought climate deal, they have been greeted with a observe of encouragement by the town’s kindergarteners. “Kyoto people are praying for the success of this conference,’’ they wrote. ‘’The future of all people, especially the children, depends largely on the outcome.’’

The children who cheered on the Kyoto protocol are almost 30 years old today, but Japan, like most of the developed nations who signed up to it, is still struggling to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases. In fact, Japan’s reliance on fossil fuels is even greater now than it was before the Fukushima nuclear disaster a decade ago.

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

But in December the tone shifted dramatically when Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga set out a “green growth strategy” that will result in Japan’s internet emissions dropping to zero by 2050.

The mooted plans prolong even past Japan’s borders. Suga’s administration might lastly announce in April that it’ll finish Japan’s monetary help for constructing new coal-fired energy crops in south-east Asia and different nations, in keeping with a Nikkei report final week.

Even environmentalists who’ve been essential of the federal government’s insurance policies are inspired. “I’m very cautiously optimistic,” stated Mika Ohbayashi, director of the Renewable Energy Institute. “I have to say that Suga-san is more serious about climate change [than Shinzo Abe, his predecessor].”

Some of Japan’s most necessary corporations have been extra alarmed than impressed, nonetheless.

One facet of the inexperienced technique instantly seized the eye of Japan’s highly effective automotive business: new gasoline-powered autos are to be fully changed by “electrified” vehicles by the mid-2030s.

A uncommon public criticism of the federal government got here from none aside from Akio Toyoda, Toyota Motor’s president. “There is a risk that the automotive industry’s business model could collapse,” he warned.

Among Toyoda’s predominant arguments is that Japan will be unable to supply sufficient clear electrical energy to energy all vehicles until the nation will get busy constructing new crops, and rapidly. Nuclear energy may generate a lot of this electrical energy with out producing greenhouse gases, however it remained unpopular within the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe.


Yet for all of the obstacles, some observers see the clear energy push as a possibility for Japan to regain its repute as an innovator.

Japan has been a laggard within the digital economic system, prompting years of soul-searching about whether or not the nation has misplaced its edge. But the nascent inexperienced energy expertise business that requires the sort of superior engineering expertise and long-term funding that the nation is understood for supplies recent hope. The optimists consider that inexperienced energy may give Japan Inc a new narrative — and a highly effective new supply of exports.

“The internet, digitisation and the app economy have pushed innovation for the last 20 years, but they haven’t solved dire issues like global warming,” stated Sota Nagano, a accomplice at Tokyo-based enterprise capital agency Abies Ventures. “These solutions require something coming out of a lab — engineering or actual science.”

Nagano famous that Japan had been supporting fundamental analysis in new supplies, robotics and different “deep tech” for many years by means of Nedo (New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization), a authorities physique that subsidises work on new energy and cutting-edge industrial expertise.

“Now the government is pushing national universities to monetise patents and research in materials, quantum computing, mechanical engineering,” stated Nagano. “It all adds up to contributing to this green energy plan. Many of the valuable assets in Japan haven’t been monetised yet.”

Japan has made two daring long-term bets on inexperienced expertise. One is its push to show hydrogen into a mainstream gas for vehicles, vehicles and electrical energy era. The different is on a new kind of electric car battery that guarantees to be much more environment friendly than the lithium-ion fashions that energy Teslas and different electrical autos on the highway at the moment.

“Hydrogen and solid state batteries are the areas that Japanese companies have been focusing on as a competitive advantage,” stated Kota Yuzawa, a Goldman Sachs analyst in Tokyo who follows the auto business.

He believes the latest inexperienced push by Japan, along with efforts by China and the Biden administration, will quickly speed up the transfer to electrical autos globally. Toyota has been engaged on the battery expertise often called advanced solid state for greater than a decade, and it plans to roll out a prototype this 12 months.


Fact field: Solid-state battery

Solid-state batteries have been the main focus of start-ups over the previous decade however aren’t but capable of be produced at scale. The cells use a strong electrolyte somewhat than a liquid one, as in most typical lithium-ion batteries. They additionally include a lithium metallic anode somewhat than a graphite one, which permits the battery to retailer extra energy. Challenges to vast manufacturing embrace stability and materials prices.

Toyota claims its battery can energy a journey of 500km on one cost, or about twice the gap for typical electrical vehicles at the moment. The batteries are smaller and don’t require any cooling system, permitting extra legroom within the automotive, and aren’t liable to catching hearth as can occur with lithium batteries. Solid-state batteries would additionally have the ability to absolutely recharge in 10 minutes.

“It’s more like the time it takes a gas engine at the filling station,” Yuzawa stated.

There are issues, nonetheless. Chief amongst them is the likelihood of leaks of sulphide fuel, which is toxic. And the associated fee of making solid-state batteries will likely be increased than lithium ones till they are often mass produced.

Although Japan has a massive presence within the electrical car battery market — Panasonic makes batteries for Tesla — it’s far behind China, which has spared no expense pursuing an ambition to dominate it.

Japan has sought to counter this by encouraging the event of the solid-state batteries, which it hopes will finally turn out to be the usual. But the timeframes are lengthy: a viable product is just not anticipated till the second half of this decade.

Much nearer is the prospect of vehicles working on hydrogen, the gas supply that’s a cornerstone of Japan’s plan for a carbon-neutral future however has main automotive business detractors. Toyota launched the primary business hydrogen car, the Mirai (“future” in Japanese), in 2014. The second mannequin of the Mirai got here out in December 2020. The Mirai runs on a hydrogen-powered “fuel cell” that doesn’t emit CO2 and could be rapidly refilled at a roadside station.

Diagram showing the Toyota Mirai's hydrogen fuel cell drive train

But hydrogen has the drawbacks of storage and distribution, requiring excessive stress, in addition to presently being costly to supply by means of electrolysis utilizing inexperienced energy sources. Tesla founder Elon Musk calls them “fool cells” and has stated hydrogen-powered vehicles are a “mindbogglingly stupid” concept, whereas VW has roundly dismissed its prospects for passenger vehicles.

Even if rival automotive business leaders are proper about hydrogen vehicles, Goldman Sachs’ Yuzawa believes it’s nonetheless price investing within the expertise. “When you think of a heavy-duty [cargo] truck, it would have to carry a heavy lithium battery all the way. So, hydrogen is a more efficient way to move large cargo across long distances.”


FT Series: Hydrogen — Fantasy or gas of the longer term?

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Long heralded as an alternative choice to fossil fuels, can the fuel actually assist remedy the world’s dirtiest energy issues?

Ohbayashi believes that hydrogen may have a position to play in reaching the zero internet emissions objective, however that it’s extra necessary that the federal government concentrate on renewable energy corresponding to wind, photo voltaic and geothermal. At the time of the Fukushima catastrophe, she notes, renewables accounted for 10 per cent of Japan’s electrical energy combine. Now it’s about 20 per cent.

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

Her view that Japan may very well be powered fully by renewables is just not broadly shared in authorities or business, the place many are hoping for a revival of the nuclear business, together with its energy minister Hiroshi Kajiyama, who informed the Financial Times this 12 months that nuclear was key to assembly its energy targets.

But it does seize a renewed sense that Japan, with few energy assets of its personal, is succesful of ending its dependence on imported fossil fuels.

Along with a authorities and business dedication to revolutionary engineering, it displays additionally a hope that the Kyoto kindergarteners of the late Nineties will see the world they envisioned by the point they’re 60.

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Climate Capital

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