World's Biggest Car Company Says No to Gasoline, Yes to Hydrogen
Just as the widespread adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) has begun to seem like a real possibility, the head of Toyota, the world's largest automaker, is already projecting moving beyond that technology.
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Toyota president Akio Toyoda said in a lengthy profile in Business Week that the next step is cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells, and he believes Toyota could produce such a mass-market vehicle in the not-unforeseeable future. The company began work on fuel cell development in the early ’90s, but the cost of producing the vehicle was prohibitive at the time—close to $1 million each. It's since re-engineered the cells and the manufacturing process to make it more economical.
While other companies are jumping into the EV market, expanding their offerings, improving their batteries and looking at ways to extent these vehicles' range, Toyota will be offering its new hydrogen-fueled vehicle, called the Mirai, in Europe and the U.S. by late next year. It's already available in Japan. It costs about $62,000.
"This is not an alternative to a gasoline vehicle,” Scott Samuelsen, an engineer and director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California at Irvine told Business Week. “This is a quantum step up.”
Its driving range of 300 miles is a vast improvement on EVs. It emits only heat and water, not greenhouse gases that pollute the atmosphere and drive climate change. And with transportation providing more than 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, that's significant.
“The automobile industry can contribute to the sustainable growth of Earth itself,” Akio told Business Week. “At Toyota, we are looking out 50 years and even more decades into the future. I do believe that [the] fuel-cell vehicle is the ultimate environmentally friendly car."
Photo credit: Shutterstock
For those living in the present and not 50 years from now, there are drawbacks, as companies invested in bringing EVs to the market are only too willing to point out. While more EV battery-charging stations are popping up around the landscape, especially in forward-looking California, hydrogen fueling stations are vanishingly rare and would require a big investment. The fact that hydrogen cells can fuel in less than five minutes isn't such an advantage if you can't find a place to do it. With only nine public fueling stations and a mere 18 in the pipeline for the next few years in early-adopter California—and 13 nationwide, compared to more than 20,000 electric battery charging stations, and the cost of a hydrogen fill-up about $45, dropping $62,000 into the Mirai sedan might not be such a smart choice for now.
“Its infrastructure is constrained much more than electric vehicles, where you can charge them at home,” Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis told Business Week.
Not only is charging EV batteries becoming faster, but today Tesla founder Elon Musk announced that his company is working on a battery-swapping system, where a spent battery can be swapped at a charging station for a fully charged one in less time than it takes to fill a tank with gas, and that it's already beta-testing it in—where else?—California.
Pack swap now operating in limited beta mode for SF to LA route. Can swap battery faster than visiting a gas station. Tesla blog out soon.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 19, 2014
Companies with an interest in EVs also dispute Toyota's claim that hydrogen fuel cell cars are better for the environment. Musk has called the fuel cells "fool cells" and said at a news conference in Tokyo a few months ago that since virtually all U.S. hydrogen production comes from burning natural gas, vehicles like the Mirai are “hydrocarbon-burning cars in disguise.”
Akio Toyoda's response: “There’s a high possibility that there will be many sources of hydrogen in the future, such as solar energy and even waste."
Ironically, Toyota's own push into EVs, with its investment in research and development of hybrids, plug-in-electrics and advanced batteries, has helped drive increased acceptance and consumer feasibility of those cars and lured other players into the field.
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World leaders and businesses are not putting enough money into adapting to dangerous changes in the climate and must "urgently step up action," according to a report published Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
Adaptation Has a Long Way to Go<p>The Adaptation Gap Report, now in its 5th year, finds "huge gaps" between what world leaders agreed to do under the 2015 <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/5-years-paris-climate-agreement/a-55901139" target="_blank">Paris Agreement</a> and what they need to do to keep their citizens safe from climate change.</p><p>A review by the Global Adaptation Mapping Initiative of almost 1,700 examples of climate adaptation found that a third were in the early stages of implementation — and only 3% had reached the point of reducing risks.</p><p>Disasters like storms and droughts have grown stronger than they should be because people have warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels and chopping down rainforests. The world has heated by more than 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution and is on track to warm by about 3°C by the end of the century.</p><p>If world leaders <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-change-performance-index-how-far-have-we-come/a-55846406" target="_blank">deliver on recent pledges</a> to bring emissions to <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/joe-bidens-climate-pledges-are-they-realistic/a-56173821" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">net-zero</a> by the middle of the century, they could almost limit warming to 2°C. The target of the Paris Agreement, however, is to reach a target well below that — ideally 1.5°C. </p><p>There are two ways, scientists say, to lessen the pain that warming will bring: mitigating climate change by cutting carbon pollution and adapting to the hotter, less stable world it brings.</p>
The Cost of Climate Adaptation<p>About three-quarters of the world's countries have national plans to adapt to climate change, according to the report, but most lack the regulations, incentives and funding to make them work.</p><p>More than a decade ago, rich countries most responsible for climate change pledged to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 in climate finance for poorer countries. UNEP says it is "impossible to answer" whether that goal has been met, while an OECD study published in November found that between 2013 and 2018, the target sum had not once been achieved. Even in 2018, which recorded the highest level of contributions, rich countries were still $20 billion short.</p><p>The yearly adaptation costs for developing countries alone are estimated at $70 billion. This figure is expected to at least double by the end of the decade as temperatures rise, and will hit $280-500 billion by 2050, according to the report.</p><p>But failing to adapt is even more expensive.</p><p>When powerful storms like cyclones Fani and Bulbul struck South Asia, early-warning systems allowed governments to move millions of people out of danger at short notice. Storms of similar strength that have hit East Africa, like <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/zimbabwe-after-cyclone-idai-building-climate-friendly-practices/a-54251885" target="_blank">cyclones Idai</a> and Kenneth, have proved more deadly because fewer people were evacuated before disaster struck.</p><p>The Global Commission on Adaptation estimated in 2019 that a $1.8 trillion investment in early warning systems, buildings, agriculture, mangroves and water resources could reap $7.1 trillion in benefits from economic activity and avoided costs when disasters strike.</p>
Exploring Nature-Based Solutions<p>The report also highlights how restoring nature can protect people from climate change while benefiting local communities and ecology.</p><p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-fires-risk-climate-change-bushfires-australia-california-extreme-weather-firefighters/a-54817927" target="_blank">Wildfires</a>, for instance, could be made less punishing by restoring grasslands and regularly burning the land in controlled settings. Indigenous communities from Australia to Canada have done this for millennia in a way that encourages plant growth while reducing the risk of uncontrolled wildfires. Reforestation, meanwhile, can stop soil erosion and flooding during heavy rainfall while trapping carbon and protecting wildlife.</p><p>In countries like Brazil and Malaysia, governments could better protect coastal homes from floods and storms by restoring <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/mudflats-mangroves-and-marshes-the-great-coastal-protectors/a-50628747" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mangroves</a> — tangled trees that grow in tropical swamps. As well as anchoring sediments and absorbing the crash of waves, mangroves can store carbon, help fish populations grow and boost local economies through tourism. </p><p>While nature-based solutions are often cheaper than building hard infrastructure, their funding makes up a "tiny fraction" of adaptation finance, the report authors wrote. An analysis of four global climate funds that spent $94 billion on adaptation projects found that just $12 billion went to nature-based solutions and little of this was spent implementing projects on the ground.</p><p>But little is known about their long-term effectiveness. At higher temperatures, the effects of climate change may be so great that they overwhelm natural defenses like mangroves.</p><p>By 2050, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/rising-sea-levels-should-we-let-the-ocean-in-a-50704953/a-50704953" target="_blank">coastal floods</a> that used to hit once a century will strike many cities every year, according to a 2019 report on oceans by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the gold standard on climate science. This could force dense cities on low-lying coasts to build higher sea walls, like in Indonesia and South Korea, or evacuate entire communities from sinking islands, like in Fiji.</p><p>It's not a case of replacing infrastructure, said Matthias Garschagen, a geographer at Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany and IPCC author, who was not involved in the UNEP report. "The case for nature-based solutions is often misinterpreted as a battle... but they're part of a toolkit that we've ignored for too long."</p>
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