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Climate Change

Japan aims to bring total lifetime auto emissions down to zero

2050 greenhouse goals need clean energy for auto production and EV power supply

Tokyo will look to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions by autos from the production stage to when they are actually driven. (Photo by Kei Higuchi)

TOKYO -- The government of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is launching another initiative in his quest for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050: manufacturing and running cars on renewables only.

Automobiles account for nearly 20% of carbon dioxide emissions in Japan. Yet reducing the industry's carbon footprint hinges not just on emissions from vehicles, but also the greenhouse gases produced during the entire life cycle of a car.

Though electric vehicles emit no carbon themselves, it is estimated that producing them and their batteries generates nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as making gasoline automobiles.

For gasoline vehicles, carbon dioxide is generated when petroleum is extracted from oil fields, when the crude is refined into gasoline, and when the gasoline is burned by the autos.

But electric vehicles contribute to emissions because they are powered mainly by electricity generated from plants that burn fossil fuels. Such power stations account for nearly 80% of Japan's electricity generation.

The shift to electric vehicles will require an overhaul of power sources. Expanding the renewable energy industry as well as the use of hydrogen will be key.

Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry opened a conference Thursday to discuss the 2050 net-zero target, with manufacturing executives and experts joining in the dialogue. A plan to reduce greenhouse gases, with specific regulations included, will be compiled by the government this month.

Part of the agenda involves promoting development of next-generation electric vehicle technology, such as solid-state batteries. Japan plans to establish the target of having all new-vehicle sales be either EVs or hybrids by the mid-2030s. Also under consideration is a carbon credit trading market among automakers in conjunction with sales quotas for green vehicles.

"This needs to be taken into consideration along with the energy policy," a conference participant said.

Japan will revise its basic energy plan next year. At issue will be how far to expand the share of power generation sourced from renewable energy. The goal for fiscal 2030 is to reach 22% to 24%, up from the 18% ratio in fiscal 2019. In contrast, major European countries have targets hovering around 40%.

METI has suggested the expanded adoption of "carbon free" hydrogen, and METI Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama indicated plans to develop renewable energy into Japan's largest source of electricity. Policymakers will take into account the environmental impact of producing, delivering and consuming fuels.

But hydrogen faces a significant hurdle to carbon-neutral feasibility. Hydrogen produced with coal is labeled "gray hydrogen" -- as opposed to the green variety -- since the process emits carbon dioxide. This overrides whatever carbon neutrality is gained from fuel-cell vehicles that move on hydrogen.

Green hydrogen is produced with renewable energy. In this light, the spread of renewables will be imperative.

Japanese automakers already are focusing on greenhouse gas emissions beyond the exhaust pipe. Toyota Motor executives have told government officials that true decarbonization cannot be realized solely by focusing on running vehicles, and that the debate should integrate the electric power supply structure and the national energy plan.

When it comes to the zero-emissions goal, "it's not a target that can be reached, it's a target that must be reached," said a Toyota executive.

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