At next week’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, the United States and Europe will pledge to slash their carbon emissions in the “decisive decade” of the 2020s. Calling the climate crisis the “existential threat of our time,” President Biden is committed to cutting two-thirds of hydrocarbon-based power generation by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
Meeting the first target will require doubling solar and wind capacity in the next decade and inducing enough drivers to switch from combustion engines to electronic vehicles to cut transportation emissions by 20 percent. Many have noted that these goals are ambitious. Few have recognized that, at a time when relations between the United States and China are becoming increasingly competitive, reaching these goals will deepen US dependence on China.
The brute fact is that China is the world’s leading manufacturer, exporter, and user of every green technology. While America led the way in developing green energy technologies over the past two decades, China became the major producer of these technologies and products. It is the leading global supplier of electric vehicles, with a 40 percent market share, 40 percent in wind turbines, and 35 percent in green hydrogen. From producing less than 1 percent of solar panels in 2000, China now supplies 80 percent of solar panels globally. By comparison, America’s share of solar panels has fallen from 30 percent in 2000 to less than 1 percent today.
A central pillar of Biden’s climate strategy is a sharp turn to EVs to reduce the 20 percent of US carbon emissions that come from vehicles’ combustion engines. Biden has pledged that half of all automobiles sold in the US will be electric by 2030, and GM plans to sell only EVs by 2035. But where does the most important component in EVs — the lithium-ion battery — come from? China has a near-monopoly on the key inputs for these batteries. It controls 80 percent of battery raw-material refining, and it supplies 50 percent of the world’s chemical lithium, 70 percent of synthetic graphite, and 90 percent of manganese. It would take the United States over a decade just to catch up to China in sourcing these raw materials.
China’s leadership in green tech is a harbinger for a larger and much more consequential shift. A forthcoming report from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center documents what has actually happened in the past two decades in the technology race between China and the United States. Not just in green tech, but also across the array of the 21st century’s foundational technologies — artificial intelligence, semiconductors, 5G, quantum information science, and biotechnology — China has made great leaps forward. Indeed, in a number of arenas, such as 5G and applications of artificial intelligence for facial and voice recognition, China is now ahead.
China has made no secret about its ambition for technological supremacy. In 2015, President Xi Jinping put “Made in China 2025″ at the center of China’s economic agenda, prioritizing investment in domestic production of 10 emerging technologies including EVs, robotics, and materials engineering. Since then, China has met nearly all its technology targets. In an April 2020 speech, Xi made more explicit a related goal: “[W]e must tighten international production chains’ dependence on China, forming a powerful countermeasure and deterrent capability against foreigners who would artificially cut off supply [to China].”
China’s rapid rise to green energy dominance will not only give Beijing the lion’s share of what will be a $16 trillion renewables market. China will also have the capability to squeeze the green energy supply chain by limiting exports of key inputs such as rare earth metals or products like lithium-ion batteries, much as the Trump administration did in banning exports of advanced semiconductors to China.
Focusing on inconvenient truths may seem unhelpful, but facts are stubborn things. The reason why China poses such a complex, vexing strategic challenge is that it is both the most formidable geopolitical rival the United States has ever confronted and, at the same time, a nation with which we are condemned to coexist.
In a contained biosphere in which greenhouse gas emissions from either country can so disrupt the climate that neither can live in it, the primal instinct for survival will certainly be a powerful driver. But whether the leaders and citizens of both countries can find their way to successfully manage compelling contradictory imperatives in what the Biden Administration has called “competitive coexistence” remains to be seen.
Graham Allison is Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School.