Toyota’s fair-weather environmentalism imperils green transition

9 Desember 2021

One-time hybrid pioneer Toyota has announced plans to pivot to selling zero-emission vehicles (ZEV) only by 2035 in Western Europe. There’s little mystery about the impetus behind the long-term plan—as industry observers very quickly noted, the move towards CO2-free vehicles mirrors the European Green Deal stipulation that the average emissions of new cars must be reduced by 55% from now until 2030 and by 100% between now and 2035. Toyota, one analysis suggested, “has announced these targets not because it wants to, but because it has to due to impending EU legislation”.

The caveats attached to Toyota’s emissions-free plans—the carmaker specified that the ZEV acceleration will only apply to Western Europe and added the proviso that “sufficient electric charging and hydrogen refueling infrastructure are in place” by 2035—only reinforce the notion that the Japanese auto manufacturer is dragging its feet on going carbon-free.

Toyota’s reluctant move to bring its sales plan in line with European Green Deal objectives will undoubtedly shine a brighter spotlight on the car company’s remarkably obstructionist attitude towards the electric vehicle revolution. Indeed, Toyota—once a poster child for sustainability when it introduced the Prius, the world’s first mass-produced hybrid car—has increasingly veered in a retrograde direction, lobbying against climate regulations with a tenacity usual found among fossil fuel companies. In fact, a recent report found that Toyota was the third-worst offender in terms of lobbying to hold back proactive climate policies, with its obstructionism only surpassed by oil giants Exxon Mobil and Chevron.

Bet on the wrong horse

What happened that turned Toyota from one of the vanguards of eco-friendly transport to an “industry laggard” singled out by think tanks for attempting to undermine public climate goals? The fundamental problem was that Toyota repeatedly missed the boat on electric vehicles, underestimating their promise and appeal. The Japanese carmaker thought that, in the medium term, its hybrid cars would hold a competitive edge for longer, and bet big on hydrogen fuel cells as the vehicle of the future.

Instead, innovation in key sectors such as batteries meant that long-range electric vehicles became feasible and affordable far quicker than Toyota had counted on, a miscalculation that is only compounded by the fact that its hydrogen dreams have fallen short. Hydrogen cars remain costly, and their fuel is notoriously hard to come by. In California, for example, there are a paltry 45 hydrogen stations across the entire state–compared to more than 14,000 charging stations for electric vehicles. Toyota has attempted to lure in customers with perks such as a $15,000 fuel card, but even this hasn’t squared the circle–the few stations available don’t always have enough fuel to meet demand. It’s unsurprising, then, that sales of Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell cars are essentially flatlining–the Japanese automaker sold a meager 3700 hydrogen cars worldwide over the first six months of 2021.

Concerted campaign taking shape

Stuck with hydrogen technology which took billions of dollars to develop yet nobody seems to want to buy and falling behind in the electric vehicle race, Toyota seems to have embarked on a global effort to delay the shift to EVs long enough to give it a prayer of catching up–and to reap a few more years of profits off of its hybrid models.

High-profile Toyota executives, including CEO Akio Toyoda, have called the electric vehicle transition “overhyped”, copying oil and gas industry talking points with references to the emissions associated with power plants. Toyota has put particular effort into derailing the rise of electric vehicles in the United States, lobbying elected officials on both sides of the aisle against a provision in the Biden administration’s “Build Back Better” plan which would both extend a tax credit for electric vehicles and ensure that the tax benefit applies to vehicles made by unionized workers running on American-made batteries, in order to stimulate the U.S. EV industry.

With American companies already taking the lead on electric vehicles while Toyota falls behind, the fiscal measure could deal a serious blow to Toyota’s bottom line. As a result, the Japanese car manufacturer has courted everyone from hardline Republican lawmakers who refused to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election, to centrist West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. Manchin, which is one of the loudest voices against the tax credit, has appeared at Toyota events to rail against the proposed tax credit, essentially prioritizing the 2000 non-union jobs at Toyota’s West Virginia components plant over the countless union jobs of the ilk which built Manchin’s state.

Toyota’s deep pockets must not put electric vehicle revolution at risk

Manchin has tried to justify his opposition to the electric vehicle tax credit by arguing that “we shouldn’t use everyone’s tax dollars to pick winners and losers”. The clear loser if Toyota’s lobbying pays dividends, of course, will be the climate. The necessity of accelerating the transition to electric cars was on full display at the recent COP26 in Glasgow, where over 30 national governments and six large auto manufacturers–notably not including Toyota–signed a declaration agreeing to go 100% zero-emission by 2040 at the latest.

Electrifying road transport is a vital component of curbing carbon emissions and stabilizing global warming; as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has noted, emissions from the transport sector will more than double by 2050 in the absence of action to promote electric vehicles. Under the circumstances, there’s no room for obstructionism from the world’s largest automaker.

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