Listen out: ‘The American Jobs Plan will unify and mobilise the country to meet the two great challenges of our time: the climate crisis and the ambitions of an autocratic China.’

So said Joe Biden’s Press Secretary on 31st March, unveiling his new American Jobs Plan – in all its $2tn glory!

That statement really made me sit up. When I wrote ‘The World We Made’ back in 2012, it seemed obvious to me that the US would be very reluctant to ‘gift’ China global dominance in the burgeoning green economy. This is what I wrote:

‘From around 2012, the ‘green arms race’ between China and the USA started to become a big political issue. By 2016, a decade’s worth of China’s investment in renewable energy and every kind of green tech had achieved exactly what the Chinese had hoped for: increasing domination of what was the world’s fastest-growing economic sector. During the 2016 Presidential Election, ‘winning the green arms race’ was a powerful rallying call for both candidates.’

I went on to predict a Republican victory in 2016 (√), with an incredibly smart, pragmatic candidate (XXX!) who persuaded his Party that winning this particular arms race was a top priority. (Prediction can be a thankless task, but there’s some compensation in getting things right – if just a few years out!)

The Biden/Harris Administration marked its 100th day in office on April 30th. It’s been an utterly remarkable 100 days, shifting the US from its status as climate-trashing pariah-in-chief (under Trump) to proactive champion leading the charge on global climate diplomacy in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow in November. And doing that far more effectively, in my opinion than COP26’s formal co-Presidents in the UK and Italy. Here’s a quick summary:

1. The team

Biden and Harris have appointed a heavyweight team (from John Kerry as Climate Envoy through to literally dozens of senior appointments across the whole of the Administration). They’re all experienced operators with deep knowledge of ‘working the system’. 2021 is the key year; 2022 is back into adversarial politics with the mid-term Elections coming up in November.

2. Executive Orders

Biden’s first day in office saw a blizzard of Executive Orders designed to undo some of the damage done after four years of Trump in the White House. Recommitting to the 2105 Paris Agreement got all the headlines over here, but his signal to all Federal Departments and Agencies that their (vast!) procurement budgets would need to prioritise low-carbon investment mattered at least as much. This was something that Barack Obama totally failed to sort out in his eight years in the White House.

3. The American Rescue Act

Biden’s $1.9tn stimulus package, in response to the economic fallout from the pandemic, is the closest thing to an old-fashioned Keynesian investment programme that the world has seen for a very long time – not just in terms of the direct payments made to US citizens, beefed-up unemployment insurance and new childcare benefits, but through significant investments in public services, including $30bn devoted to public transport and $350bn for state and local governments to repair their broken-down infrastructure (water, sewerage, broadband and so on).

4. The Leaders Summit on Climate (April 22nd – Earth Day)

The President used his platform here to declare a new target of a 50%-52% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, on 2005 levels. He could (and perhaps should) have been more ambitious, but this puts the US right back in the top tier, as Nathaniel Keohane of the Environmental Defense Fund put it: ‘We’re seeing an Administration that is willing to go bold when the moment demands it. This compares favourably with the rest of the world, and puts the US in the top tier, which is where it should be as the largest historical emitter over time and the second largest emitter today – after China.’

5. The American Jobs Plan

As already mentioned, this is another $2tn blockbuster, focusing not just on physical infrastructure (including grid upgrades, clean manufacturing, tax credits for renewable electricity, public transit and rail, EVs and so on), but on digital infrastructure and social infrastructure (with a particular emphasis on carers and on improving children’s wellbeing). It’s an inspiring ‘declaration of intent’, but there’s a long way to go before it clears through the Senate.

This is not Joe Biden’s ‘Climate Plan’ as some critics have claimed. Nor is it some all-encompassing Green New Deal, as some had been hoping for. It’s much smarter than that, with an unapologetic emphasis on ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’, speaking as powerfully to blue-collar workers and to rural communities as to the Democrats’ traditional metropolitan constituencies. In effect, he’s seeking to redefine what bipartisanship means by reaching out directly to Republican voters, while worrying far less about Republican politicians in Congress still in thrall to the ‘Big Lie’ of Trump himself. Going after ‘autocratic China’ is popular with everyone!

(By the way, the Administration does have a much bigger initiative waiting in the wings: the Clean Future Act (the Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s Future), with much more ambitious targets on a host of Green New Deal priorities. But getting that through the Senate will be a nightmare.)


That’s what Biden’s been up to. What’s China been doing during the same time?

Very little is the simple answer. China’s economy is back in full-on growth mode, and investment in new coal-fired power stations is as strong as ever. The International Energy Agency has warned that its emissions in 2021 will be higher than ever, and that there is literally nothing by way of a roadmap to show how China intends to achieve its target of becoming a Net Zero economy by 2060.

We have to understand the deep contradiction at work here.

1. In terms of the global economy, China is as rapaciously intent as it has ever been on dominating what will soon become the multi-trillion-dollar green tech sector. This has little if anything to do with concerns about climate change, and everything to do with the ‘made in China’, innovation-driven game-plan captured in its latest Five Year Plan. China doubled its already huge investment in renewables in 2020. It’s installed far more wind power and far more solar power than any other nation on Earth. Five out of the ten largest wind power companies in the world are Chinese; nine out of ten of the world’s largest solar companies are Chinese – and it’s this concentration of manufacturing and R&D muscle that has so dramatically driven down the cost of both wind and solar year after year after year.

One of the biggest plays of all is in the murky world of rare earths, a family of precious metals on which the wind, solar and battery industries are totally dependent – as well as today’s computers, smartphones, tablets and every other electronic device under the sun. There was a time when both the US and France maintained significant mining operations to ensure security of supply, but China flooded the global market with subsidised rare earths – and now controls around 95% of total global production.

2. The environmental damage done through China’s massive mining operations (for rare metals of every kind, let alone for coal) is totally shocking. And that’s the other side of this domination story: the cumulative costs of 30 years of more-or-less unregulated economic growth, based on cheap coal, are quite literally incalculable. This ‘growth-at-all-costs’ model of development is not just condemning its own citizens to an unprecedented environmental reckoning in the near future, but condemning the whole of humankind to a climate meltdown of an almost inconceivable magnitude. And that’s all about coal.

There’s much talk of China’s ambition to reduce dependence on coal – as there has been for years. Most of it is complete nonsense. Its existing commitments are as minimalist as they can get away with: emissions peaking in 2030 (ie going up and up until then); modest reductions in the amount of CO2 emitted per tonne of output; and a ‘Net Zero economy’ by 2060. It is of course possible that China will come forward with more ambitious plans before COP26 at the end of 2021, but its latest Five-Year Plan (released in March this year, covering the 2021-2025 period) provided little reassurance on that score.

You can see this contradictory dynamic playing out in the world of EVs. There are now 4.5 million EVs on China’s roads. There are already 100 electric car manufacturers in China, with thousands of companies involved in this burgeoning supply chain. So they’re not hanging around – in comparison to all of us slowcoaches in the West. This is one area where one can talk uncontroversially about China seeking global domination – and not just with EVs. There are already 250 million electric bikes on China’s roads, and around 400,000 electric buses. 100% of Shenzen’s 16,000 buses are already fully electric. China produces 99% of all electric buses in the world.

The story of EVs is really a story about batteries. The Chinese are already responsible for two-thirds of global lithium-ion battery manufacture; the USA just 10%. In terms of the raw materials required for battery manufacture, the Chinese now control between 50% and 70% of global supply. And with all this industrial muscle deployed so aggressively, they’ve been almost as effective in bringing down the costs of battery production (down 60% over the past five years) as they have been with solar panels.

And batteries are all about lithium. China (or, rather, Tibet) may not have the largest reserves of lithium – that’s Chile – and it’s not even the largest producer of lithium – that’s currently Australia. But it soon will be. Use of lithium-ion for batteries in China is projected to increase tenfold by 2030, and Chinese companies are expanding the mining and extraction of lithium from Tibet at an astonishing rate, causing horrendous environmental pollution in some of the world’s most sensitive (and most sacred) places.

The extraction of lithium represents just a small part of China’s continuing exploitation of Tibet’s natural resources – and a small part of its subjugation of the rights and the culture of Tibetan people. This seventy-year horror story is now compounded by its ruthless oppression and ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Uighurs in neighbouring Xinjiang, with anywhere between a million and three million now being held in so-called ‘re-education camps’. These look pretty much like the Nazi concentration camps in the Second World War, minus the gas chambers.

All this poses a serious dilemma for Western companies, given that almost every solar panel sold in the EU includes some polysilicon from the Xinjiang region – 45% of the global supply of high-grade polysilicon comes from Xinjiang. It’s well known that the ‘re-education camps’ double up as forced labour camps, and there is now growing evidence that China has been intent on ‘compulsory upskilling’ of Uighurs in this high-tech sector.

We have to be honest here. Xi Jinping is a hateful tyrant. China’s economy is by far and away the greatest single threat to any prospect of a stable climate in the future. We’ve cut them a lot of slack simply because they’ve made it possible for the rest of the world to start getting out of fossil fuels far faster than anyone thought possible – and far faster than they have any intention of doing themselves. But we simply cannot go on turning a blind eye to the abhorrent environmental and social consequences of these economic and technological breakthroughs.

So let nobody underestimate the geopolitical implications of all this. These are still relatively early days, and the value of the green economy is still a fraction of the value of legacy fossil fuels. But that is changing rapidly.

I would argue that this is now the biggest proxy war going on in the world today. America is late to the party – at least ten years late – and is in catch-up mode, but the Administration has clearly recognised that this is indeed a war. The EU doesn’t seem to understand that there’s a war going on at all. Other countries are bit-part players in this titanic struggle.

And it’s not just a war about technology and the environment; it’s a war about democracy and autocracy. But that’s for another time.


This blog (in an edited version) was first published on the Futures Centre website, 22 June 2021