EU's choice: curbing climate change or China?
Published: Jun 25, 2024 03:54 PM
Illustration:Liu Rui/GT

Illustration:Liu Rui/GT

It has long been accepted, at least in theory, that climate change poses the greatest threat to humanity. With each passing year, new record heatwaves, devastating floods, deadly fires and rising sea levels have reinforced near-unanimous warnings from climate scientists that our present way of living is fast becoming unsustainable. However, it is one thing to agree in words, but quite another to deliver the policies that will translate those words into effective action. This is now being dramatically tested by the response of the US and the EU to the arrival of Chinese electric vehicles (EVs) in their markets. 

It poses a simple question for the US and the EU, what matters to them most, countering the threat of climate change, as the US and EU have said many times, or containing China?

The US has given an unambiguous answer. The imposition of 100 percent tariffs by US President Joe Biden will effectively exclude Chinese EVs from the US market, denying all but the most prosperous Americans, who can afford a Tesla, access to EVs. The absence of Chinese competition will stifle the growth of a domestic EV industry that caters to most Americans. As a result, the US, home to the world's second-largest car market, will fall way short of meeting its climate targets for transport. The US has pursued the same exclusionary policy toward Chinese solar panels, even though it possesses only a very small domestic industry of its own. In short, the US has shown that isolating China is a much greater priority than the threat of global warming.

Europe, unlike the US, has not yet crossed the Rubicon. It has announced tariffs from 17 percent to 38 percent, in addition to the existing ones of 10 percent, subject to further consultation with European carmakers and the Chinese. Europe has always taken global warming more seriously than the US. It is now confronted, however, with the same dilemma, to what extent should it protect the European car industry against Chinese EV imports at the expense of its decarbonization agenda? If it followed the US protectionist approach, it would seek to exclude Chinese EVs from the European market. It is not doing that. But what compromise will it finally reach between protecting European carmakers and prioritizing its commitment to decarbonization? Or, to put it another way, what role does it see Chinese EVs playing in Europe's fight against global warming?

The dominant Western rhetoric over the last few years has been about the need to reduce dependence not just on Chinese semiconductors and advanced technology, but increasingly also on the Chinese economy in general. This has been the result of a growing belief that China posed a generalized threat to the US, greatly accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, to which the West was dependent on Chinese supply lines. This mentality, however, is now confronted by something on a different scale altogether, an existential threat to the future of humanity in the form of global warming and its potentially cataclysmic consequences. What has brought this dilemma to a head is the fact that China dominates global production of the three key green technologies - EVs, solar panels and wind turbines. 

The Global South will certainly be hugely dependent on China for its supply of these products, but - and here is the rub - so will the West. In 2024 we have witnessed a growing Western realization that these two different priorities are on a collision course. If the US-style response prevails, with the containment of China seen as the overriding priority compared with global warming, then the future of humanity looks decidedly bleak. If, on the other hand, a potential European-style response prevails, which accepts that China has a crucial role to play in the fight against global warming, and that China's green technology is indispensable for Europe's fight against climate change, then the future looks a lot more optimistic. We should be clear about the broader implications of this: Europe needs and will depend upon Chinese products and technology; the Chinese economy is critical both for Europe's and the world's future; and no cordon sanitaire can be erected around the Chinese economy without catastrophic consequences for humanity.

One final point in this context. The West has spent the last four decades lagging behind the curve of China's economic rise. At each new stage of China's development, it has been caught out. In 2015, China launched its strategic plan to create an advanced and highly innovative economy by 2025. The West wasn't paying attention. Now, 2025 is almost upon us, and in industry after industry - EVs, commercial aircraft, quantum technology, solar panels, wind turbines, and the rest - China is already delivering. It was not a secret, it was not done by subterfuge, and China could not have been more open. The West must learn to take China seriously and accept that the age of cooperation and mutual dependence is both a historical inevitability and a desirable necessity.  

The author is a visiting professor at the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University and a senior fellow at the China Institute, Fudan University. Follow him on X @martjacques. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn