Japan unveils plan for automotive industry to ‘go green’ by 2050, seeks stable cobalt supply

Japan automotive industry electric car 2050 cobalt supply
Japanese car manufacturers including Toyota, Nissan and Honda, plan to phase out petrol vehicles within the next three decades in favour of fuel-cell, gas-electric and plug-in hybrid cars.

Japan is the latest country to join the race to zero emissions by committing to domestic production and sales of only electrified vehicles by the year 2050.

The bold plan was announced this week by the central government’s economy ministry panel amid increasing global pressure for countries to “go green” as quickly as possible.

The panel, which comprised representatives from major car manufacturers Toyota, Nissan and Honda, said it will phase out conventional vehicles within the next three decades in favour of fuel-cell, gas-electric and plug-in hybrid cars.

It also outlined the government’s long-term target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of a single passenger vehicle by 90% by 2050, compared with 2010 levels.

Japan’s plan, while ambitious, is not a world first.

Earlier this year, India’s Ministry of Power launched a program focused on electric vehicles achieving a domestic market share of more than 30% by 2030.

Germany also wants to phase out gasoline vehicles by 2030, while France and the United Kingdom have announced separate bans on all non-electric cars by 2040.

The commitment by the world’s third largest economy to adopt electric vehicle technology is believed by some corners to reflect Japan’s fears of lagging behind other major automotive hubs such as the United States, Britain and China which have all made greater progress to date.

The cobalt concern

Japan’s economy ministry panel also weighed in on the cobalt supply-demand scenario, delivering a new industry initiative requiring the country’s automotive houses to work together to secure long-term and stable supplies of the much-needed resource.

The automotive consortium has been set up to procure cobalt via long-term contracts with existing global suppliers and by investing in new development projects with the Japanese government’s financial backing.

There are also plans for the consortium to utilise government support to begin developing cobalt mines in a bid to secure new sources of supply.

Japan’s cobalt-procuring initiative is an important one, as other nations scramble to lock in limited output worldwide, and will be integral to the success of its electric vehicles scheme.

In March for example, China tightened its grip on the global cobalt market when battery giant GEM signed an agreement with cobalt production powerhouse Glencore for the supply of more than 50,000 tonnes of cobalt over three years.

Experts say that figure represents about half the total amount of cobalt produced worldwide in 2017 and about one third of Glencore’s total forecast production through to 2020.

A vital link in the EV chain

Cobalt is a vital ingredient in the manufacture of electric car battery cells. Its presence in the lithium-ion mix can help stabilise a battery and prevent fires or explosions while simultaneously conserving battery strength and extending battery life.

Cobalt is rarely mined on its own – rather it occurs as a by-product of metals such as nickel, copper and lead – and has been in increasing demand worldwide as countries have shifted to lithium-intensive technologies.

In its cobalt report released in June, metals consultancy Roskill said a sharp increase in demand from the lithium-ion battery sector has contributed most to cobalt’s growth story.

Demand has been greatest in this sector than in any other end-use sector, with batteries now accounting for around 53% of total global consumption.

And the trend looks set to continue, driven mostly by the electrification of the global car industry.

“Demand for cobalt in batteries is expected to grow at 14.5% per year to 2027, by which point demand from this end-use sector alone could exceed 240,000 tonnes (or twice the size of the total market in 2017),” the report said.

“With demand for cobalt across other key end-uses such as nickel alloys used in aerospace set to increase too, the total market could exceed 310,000t by 2027.”

Roskill said several of the world’s car makers have “very publicly” begun to seek out sources for the cobalt they will require in their efforts to meet domestic particulate matter and carbon dioxide emissions targets.

The company reported that such moves have “bolstered the bullish sentiment” in the cobalt market and have helped to elevate prices too.

Cobalt price chart Japan automotive electric vehicles 2050
Cobalt price in US dollars.