With my eight-year old, everything’s a contest: Who can get dressed the fastest? Who can eat the most ice cream? Who can bend their index finger back the farthest? It’s all good fun (sometimes), but I expect that the day will come when he outgrows the childish tendency to turn everything into a win-lose competition. If only I could say the same for U.S. officials and opinion leaders and their anti-Chinese drum-beating.
As the global quest for renewable energy heats up, many clean energy advocates and leaders resort to jingoistic rhetoric to make their case. Worried that Americans aren’t concerned enough about the climate to make the case for a clean energy revolution, they often opt to appeal to the public’s supposed anti-Chinese sentiment. The sound byte goes something like this: “The Chinese are way ahead of us when it comes to clean energy. We can’t let them beat us. The United States can and must be Number 1.”
Is it true that the Chinese clean energy industry is way ahead of us? Yes. Is it true that the industry benefits from strong government policies like low-interest loans and cheap land? Right, again. In fact, the U.S. Trade Representative announced last week that it would investigate a complaint filed by the U.S. Steelworkers and may take action against China at the World Trade Organization. I find this somewhat astounding—instead of throwing everything we’ve got at ramping up our own clean energy industry, we’re wasting time trying to interfere with China’s. Doing so only makes sense if you view clean energy as a zero-sum game with one winner, but the reality is that we all win or we all lose, unless someone’s got a summer home on Mars I haven’t heard about.
China’s national energy policy strongly incentivizes the manufacturing of solar cells. Would that the U.S.’s energy policy did the same. (Would that the U.S. even had an energy policy).
The clean energy race is not a race between nations, it’s a race against time, a race against climate tipping points and against dwindling fossil fuel reserves. This isn’t a football game, it’s a mobilization to maintain a habitable planet. It’s important to ensure that Chinese manufacturers (not just of solar panels but of all exports) treat their workers fairly and deal with their toxic waste appropriately—no argument there. But let’s be careful not to play into the hands of those who are bent on demonizing China and stirring up public animosity toward its 1.3 billion citizens who, like us, simply want a future for their children.