Are fears of a green-tech race with China to rival Cold War military industrialism unfounded? Or should we be worried that all those “high-quality green jobs” touted by government and industry will be rerouted to China before most of them even get here? These questions are fast becoming a hot topic in papers and blogs around the world, as China’s unrivaled manufacturing muscle begins to dominate U.S. markets.
One writer, however, finds such fears of a green-tech war with China unfounded and damaging to global progress in embracing clean energy sources. Christina Larson, a writer based in Shanghai and Washington D.C., wrote a very concise, well-written post for Environment 360 earlier this month in an attempt to assuage fears of a U.S.-China green war. These are fears especially palpable here in the States as “Made In China” tags, which already dominate manufactured products in America, begin to show up more and more on solar panels, wind turbines and other green-tech products.
Larson breaks those fears down into three categories: the fear of job losses, fear of dwindling American innovation and the fear of losing leverage in the global economy as the U.S. trades a dependency on foreign oil for a dependence on foreign-made green-tech equipment. While I mostly agree that the U.S. is unlikely to lose its edge on innovation, and I would argue that any sense of “leverage” in the global economy we might think we have is at least partially illusory — as the U.S. is steeped beyond comprehension in what you might call credit card debt (most of that to China) — but the real controversy in Larson’s arguments revolve around jobs, where she completely misses the point about what the budding green-tech industry is supposed to do for the American working force and why people are afraid that China may be getting all the benefits while we buy all the products with money we don’t even have.
The most common argument I’ve heard in the past about why I shouldn’t be upset about a massive trade deficit or job outsourcing has been that many of these so-called “lost” jobs never, in fact, existed. Larson fancifully uses that same line in her article to put me at ease regarding jobs lost (or never gained) by China’s manufacturing dominance. She writes:
“Most of the green manufacturing jobs that the U.S. stands to ‘lose’ haven’t in fact been created yet; China will gain thousands of new jobs, but not necessarily at America’s expense.”
How does that work when the creation of quality new jobs is a main selling point for the green-tech industry in the United States? To develop and nurture a domestic industry without bringing in domestic jobs can hardly be called a substantial gain (nor truly green). Such an industry might show job profits on paper — for employers and high level employees — but will fail to have a positive effect at the ground level, where help is needed most. Those jobs and any cash-in-hand (I do not count credit as real economy) are either lost or never gained. Ask an unemployed assembly line worker in Detroit, with the skills and eagerness to cross into a new industry that may not come after all, where the difference lies.
Larson, and most free trade proponents, fail to see the history of U.S.-China trade relations. It’s not like China’s trade dominance over the U.S. is anything new. According to the Economic Policy Institute, between 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization, and 2007, some 2.3 million jobs were lost and workers displaced in the United States. Unfettered trade with China has had devastating effects on the U.S. labor force in the last decade and we can already see the same trends forming in the green-tech industry. In just three years, China’s share of California’s solar market, by far the biggest market in the U.S. and one of the biggest in the world, increased from 2 percent to 46 percent, due mainly to China’s low labor costs.
Larson would alleviate fears aroused by such staggering numbers by pointing to jobs in installation and maintenance of renewable energy systems that cannot be outsourced. I agree. Here, we have two lines of work that China cannot take away. While installation can create a lot of jobs, unfortunately, most renewable energy systems require very little maintenance. A massive solar farm in the desert may only employ a few dozen workers permanently, while a factory building the components for that solar farm would almost certainly employ several hundred. The loss of manufacturing jobs would certainly leave America in a job deficit with China, and whether we like it or not, the race is on… and we’d better get running.
All that said, I do not mean to promote a “fear” of a green-tech race with China. Fear is a blinding force and I believe fearful actions are most often mistakes. If anything, a green-tech race with China should be a motivator, a catalyst to change at the consumer and administrative levels of our country. Larson and others like her claim to be assuaging fears, which sounds hunky-dory, but in fact, are preaching acquiescence and complacency while perhaps the biggest opportunity this country has ever had to build a real and sustainable economy passes us by. Meanwhile, a country with a long history of labor suppression that now pollutes on an unrivaled level (although I’m sincerely happy to see China going greener) collects the true wealth.
Such trends may not matter to international investors, banks, businessmen and the wealthy elite in general, who can afford to deal across borders and oceans. For most of us, however, who know more about the corner store than cornering the stock market, it matters a whole lot.
So should we fear a green war with China? No. After all, we have the innovation — that essential first link in the supply chain — and the know-how and the workers to dominate. Yet we continue to move forward at a disadvantage that could be corrected, and must be as the race picks up. Otherwise, in addition to fears, it will be the hope and excitement at the prospect of a sustainable economy that will be unfounded.