USJC 2022: Lunch Plenary

Ms. Suzanne Basalla (President & CEO, U.S.-Japan Council) began the lunch plenary session by thanking all participants, special guests, members of the public, sponsors, partners, and USJC team members. She then paid respects to the leaders who had passed away since the last in-person conference: USJC Founding President Irene Hirano Inouye; former U.S. Secretary of the Departments of Commerce and Transportation Norman Mineta, who served as USJC’s Vice Chair of the Board of Councilors for a decade; and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who opened the annual conference held in 2015 and met with many USJC leaders in Japan and the United States.

Ms. Basalla then outlined ways in which USJC has been engaging in its activities and programs throughout the past few years, particularly since Ms. Hirano Inouye’s passing and the COVID-19 pandemic. People wanted to see more from USJC, and this manifested in three ways. First, there was a desire for a stronger, more resilient relationship between the United States and Japan to serve the public good through more organic and meaningful initiatives. Second, USJC received suggestions to seek the next level of building and supporting networks and communities. Third, people placed enormous value on how USJC develops the next generation of leaders. These priorities have been acted on, USJC’s focus and activities have been sharpened, and new initiatives are being put into place. USJC’s recent and ongoing activities cover a range of topics including climate change, national security, digital transformation, and diversity and inclusion.

The emcee, Mr. Eiichiro Kuwana (President and Founding Principal, Cook Pine Capital LLC) then invited Ms. Susan Pointer (Vice President, International Public Policy & Government Affairs, to give her remarks. Ms. Pointer began by noting that the climate crisis can only be solved through concerted global efforts crossing boundaries between stakeholders, so organizations like USJC may play an important role to facilitate this. The journey for an organization to become sustainable is not straightforward, including for Amazon. In 2019, Amazon co-founded the Climate Pledge, and made a commitment to achieving net zero across its business by 2040. There are now some 375 businesses and organizations that have signed the pledge. Climate Pledge signatories can benefit from learning from and partnering with each other, and many came together recently for Climate Week in New York. Amazon has nearly 400 renewable energy projects in operation across the globe, allowing it to reach 85% renewable energy across its business and become the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy. Amazon works actively with private and public sector partners worldwide to share experience and viewpoints on how smart policymaking can help unleash, enable, and facilitate rapid and scalable deployment of renewables and zero-emission vehicles.

Efforts in Japan are focused on availability and affordability of renewable energy at scale and simplifying the procurement process. Forums such as this conference are a critical part of policy and thought leadership to work towards sustainability. The Climate and Sustainability Initiative was launched in 2022, and the first Sustainability Roundtable brought together government representatives and executives from leading companies across the United States and Japan to promote learning, ambition, and action. There is a long road ahead, but everyday actions to deliver progress against climate goals will serve to achieve long-term systemic change that improves the well-being of the global community.

Mr. Kuwana next introduced the plenary dialogue, “The Sustainable Future of Transportation,” and invited the moderator and panelists onto the stage.

The moderator, Mr. David Ono (News Anchor, KABC-TV Los Angeles), first introduced the two panelists, then set the context for the discussion. He shared a short video which displayed the consequences of the melting polar ice caps, as well as two sustainable innovations: direct air capture in Iceland, and hydrogen production in Japan. Following this, Mr. Ono asked Dr. Gill Pratt (Chief Scientist and Executive Fellow for Research, Toyota Motor Corporation | Chief Executive Officer, Toyota Research Institute) to explain what we need to understand about the properties of carbon.

Dr. Pratt explained that CO2 can last up to a century in the atmosphere. Methods like direct air capture still require large amounts of energy, so it is better to not emit CO2 in the first place. Therefore, reducing carbon emissions greatly, and quickly, is essential. Mr. Ono noted that researchers are exploring a multitude of possible solutions. Then, he asked Ms. Blickstein about the differences and similarities between decarbonization in the airline industry versus the auto industry.

Mrs. Blickstein explained that the decarbonization technologies are not as advanced for the airline industry, so decarbonization before 2050 does not seem feasible. Next-generation propulsion, starting with retrofitting smaller jets is one approach to reducing emissions. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is another approach, so efforts are underway to accelerate that market and reduce reliance on conventional fuel. Mr. Ono asked what needs to happen to accelerate adoption and creation of SAF, to which Ms. Blickstein explained that policy and collaboration across multiple sectors is needed to scale it into a solution. For example, when road transport no longer relies on diesel or ethanol due to the shift to electric vehicles, renewable diesel production and ethanol production could be used to make SAF. In the U.S., renewable diesel production is made using the same inputs as those needed for SAF, so those producers will be able to shift to making SAF.

Mr. Ono noted that experiments are ongoing for developing alternative sources of fuel, such as kelp beds. To this point, Ms. Blickstein explained that SAF today is typically made from beef tallow, but there are a multitude of waste fats and oils. The goal is to eventually be able to make SAF out of pulling carbon from the air, or by using green hydrogen. Mr. Ono asked if the carbon being captured in Iceland could be a potential fuel source, and Ms. Blickstein said that it could eventually become one. Mr. Ono then asked the panelists to discuss how the dynamic of fuel sources differs between land and air transportation.

Mr. Pratt first compared gasoline, hydrogen, and the lithium found in lithium-ion batteries. The energy per mass of gasoline and hydrogen are very high, whereas the energy per mass of lithium is very low. Thanks to the wheel, however, this allows lithium-ion batteries to be a practical solution for electric vehicles, but not for airplanes, which cannot rely on wheels alone. The appeal of hydrogen is that refueling is a fast process, compared to the very slow recharging speeds of lithium-ion batteries. Different approaches will be the best in different circumstances.

Ms. Blickstein mentioned that electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) developments are making progress towards creating zero-emissions electric helicopters, as well as for small planes using batteries. But the batteries would need to be far too large for a commercial jet to get off the ground. Hence the focus is on reaching 100% SAF utilization, then hydrogen propulsion. American Airlines is investing in two startups working on different aspects of how to use hydrogen for aircrafts. Ms. Blickstein also explained that American Airlines is the number one jet fuel consumer in the world, having used 4.5 billion gallons of fuel in a year. Given such scale, being able replace that with zero emissions technologies would mean becoming one of the world’s largest renewable electricity consumers.

Mr. Ono then asked Mr. Pratt what the optimal sustainable choice is for someone buying a car. Mr. Pratt explained that in the U.S., buying a battery electric vehicle tends to be better for the environment, but in other countries this is often still not the case. Additionally, the creation of large batteries still emits a lot of carbon, so the hope is that such a battery saves more CO2 over its lifespan. Diverse answers are needed for different places. Circumstances of individuals is also diverse. Finding a low or zero carbon answer for each person is the best solution. Mr. Pratt then described the situation of the impending lithium shortage crisis, and suggested that smaller, shorter-range batteries can be utilized as an interim solution until the technology catches up. The best strategy now is different from the best strategy in the future. There is also much uncertainty in the future, so diverse possibilities now will allow us to adapt to the unpredictable future.

Finally, Mr. Ono asked the panelists whether they remain optimistic despite the obstacles ahead. Ms. Blickstein said that she is optimistic because she continues to see progress more rapid than she imagined. In the U.S., a large climate bill was passed recently, and it included an incentive to grow the market for SAF. Huge investments are being made into the science behind decarbonization.

Mr. Pratt said that he is an optimist because necessity is the mother of invention. The weather seems to be changing even more rapidly than expected, causing alarm and making people realize the severity of the situation. Hard times bring out the human characteristic of perseverance, so we try all the different ways to find a solution.

Mr. Ono thanked the panelists and brought the session to a close.