Biden Has to Choose: Climate Change or Human Rights in China

Biden Has to Choose: Climate Change or Human Rights in China


President Biden’s ambition to phase out fossil fuels is at odds with his human-rights objectives in China. Last month the US started enforcing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, “ensuring goods made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China do not enter the United States market.” Mr. Biden advocated intensely for this legislation and signed it in December.

But the administration is no less committed to using solar energy, 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 and child labor.

The lithium-based battery is the only currently available technology that permits the early electrification of transportation at scale. China has vertically integrated its supply chain to produce this product. China has acquired mining properties throughout the world to produce lithium, which it processes to manufacture batteries. China also became the dominant 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 the use of 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 Chinese Communist Party in 2017 as an aim of “Made in China 2025” policy.

China will therefore be the dominant supplier of batteries and associated electric-vehicle equipment that conventional automobile manufacturers will use to meet their statutory and regulatory requirements to produce such cars. Mr. Biden has directed that 50% of American auto sales must be electric by 2030. This accelerated deadline offers little opportunity for the industry to shift to alternative technologies or suppliers, hence locking in the US to Chinese technology for years.

The increasing cost of electric vehicles also requires a high subsidy from federal, state, and local governments to drive down the cost to the consumer to enable rapid adoption by 2030. The implications for car-industry employment in the US haven’t been reliably estimated due to the immaturity of the electric-vehicle business. But in Europe, where the coupling of the automobile sector to China is much more extensive and mature, the European Association of Automobile Suppliers estimated in 2021 that the net loss of employment in the sector would be 500,000 jobs by 2035.

China also dominates the solar-power industry. The critical material for solar panels is polysilicon, a highly purified polycrystalline form of silicon. Manufacturers produce this material through an energy-intensive metallurgical, rather than a chemical, process to create upgraded metallurgical-grade silicon suitable for solar panels. China produces about 90% of the world’s polysilicon. With its economies of scale, the use of coal-fired electrical plants in western China to produce the metallurgical-grade silicon, and forced labor, China has driven down the cost of solar panels significantly. To accelerate consumer adoption further, 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 secondary consequence of the regulatory requirement to the 2030 mandate.

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

The parallels between the economics of the solar-power and electric-vehicle industry today and the economics of American slavery in the 19th century are striking. Slave-owning cotton-plantation owners in the antebellum South were able to make a calculation involving the cotton industry’s economics. US residents of the rapidly urbanizing and industrializing North, as well as Europeans, wanted inexpensive cotton cloth that the industrialization of cotton processing made possible. But harvesting cotton was labor intensive and would have made cotton prohibitively expensive without forced labor.

The UK banned slavery and the slave trade in 1807, so Britain couldn’t employ slave labor in its empire to produce cotton. US cotton made with slave labor provided a way around the economic dilemma. American cotton made cloth sufficiently cheap that the US accounted for 80% of Britain’s cotton imports by 1860.

Solar power and electric vehicles have become popular with consumers—and are increasingly subject to government mandates in the US and Europe—in part because China can produce them so cheaply. Beijing dominates these industries with the help of forced and child labor. Enforcement of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act may 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 produced by forced and child labor in China, the US will need to adapt its climate-change goals to face moral reality.

Mr. Schneider is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He served as an undersecretary of state (1982-86) and chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board (2001-09).

Political Cuts: The gas tax holiday is another way of diverting attention from one of the contributors to inflation: a rushed transition to green energy. Images: AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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