Biden must choose: climate change or human rights in China

President Biden’s ambition to phase out fossil fuels is at odds with his human rights goals in China. Last month, the United States began enforcing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Law, “ensuring that products made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China do not enter the American market. Mr. Biden advocated intensely for this legislation and signed it into law in December.

But the administration is no less determined to use solar power, batteries and electric vehicles to meet its commitments under the Glasgow Climate Pact. The technologies that underpin these climate change commitments depend on Chinese forced labor and child labor.

The lithium battery is the only technology currently available that enables the early electrification of large-scale transportation. China has vertically integrated its supply chain to manufacture this product. China has acquired mining properties around the world to produce lithium, which it processes to make batteries. China has also become the main producer of cobalt after its acquisition of mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produces 60% of the world’s supply. Cobalt is a critical material for lithium battery anodes, and Congo’s cobalt mining industry is notorious for using child labor.

This vertically integrated approach is aligned with China’s aspirations to dominate the global electric vehicle market. This goal was established by the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017 under the “Made in China 2025” policy.

China will therefore be the main supplier of batteries and related electric vehicle equipment that conventional automakers will use to meet their legal and regulatory requirements to produce such cars. Mr Biden has ordered 50% of US auto sales to be electric by 2030. This accelerated timeline offers little opportunity for the industry to switch to alternative technologies or suppliers, effectively locking the US into a Chinese technology for years.

The rising cost of electric vehicles also requires high subsidy from federal, state and local governments to reduce the cost to the consumer to enable rapid adoption by 2030. The implications for employment in the automotive industry in the United States have not been reliably estimated. due to the immaturity of the electric vehicle sector. But in Europe, where the coupling of the automotive sector to China is much more extensive and mature, the European Association of Automotive Suppliers estimated in 2021 that the net loss of jobs in the sector would be 500,000 jobs by 2035.

China also dominates the solar energy industry. The critical material for solar panels is polysilicon, a highly purified form of polycrystalline silicon. Manufacturers produce this material through an energy-intensive metallurgical process, rather than a chemical one, to create enhanced metallurgical-grade silicon suitable for solar panels. China produces around 90% of the world’s polysilicon. With its economies of scale, the use of coal-fired power plants in western China to produce metallurgical-grade silicon, and forced labor, China has dramatically reduced the cost of solar panels. To further accelerate consumer adoption, the Biden administration is likely to suspend tariffs on Chinese solar panels for two years, even though the domestic solar panel industry will suffer as a side consequence of the Mandate 2030 regulatory requirement. .

Falling production costs in China due to cheap and forced labor, along with a variety of federal, state and local subsidies, have reduced the cost of solar panels to consumers by 30-50%. Falling prices and regulatory mandates have boosted consumer demand for solar panels and electric vehicles, fueling the Biden administration’s hopes of meeting its climate change goals.

The parallels between the economics of the solar power and electric vehicle industry today and the economy of American slavery in the 19th century are striking. Owners of cotton plantations owning slaves in the pre-war South were able to make a calculation involving the economics of the cotton industry. American residents of the rapidly urbanizing and industrializing North, as well as Europeans, wanted inexpensive cotton fabrics made possible by the industrialization of cotton processing. But cotton harvesting was labor intensive and would have made cotton prohibitively expensive without forced labor.

The United Kingdom outlawed slavery and the slave trade in 1807, so Britain could not employ slave labor in its empire to produce cotton. American cotton made with slave labor circumvented the economic dilemma. American Cotton made fabrics cheap enough that the United States accounted for 80% of British cotton imports by 1860.

Solar power and electric vehicles have become popular with consumers — and are increasingly subject to government mandates in the United States and Europe — in part because China can produce them so cheaply. Beijing dominates these industries with the help of forced labor and children. Enforcement of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Law could force Americans to make the choice that Lincoln and other political figures of his day made more than 150 years ago. When this law forces Americans to stop using products made by forced labor and child labor in China, the United States will have to adapt its climate change goals to face the moral reality.

Dr. Schneider is a Principal Investigator at the Hudson Institute. He served as Under Secretary of State (1982-86) and Chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board (2001-09).

Policy cuts: The gas tax exemption is another way to divert attention from one of the contributors to inflation: a hasty transition to green energy. Images: AFP/Getty Images Composition: Mark Kelly

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