How Biden is outflanking Trump on China trade, clean energy and climate change 

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When it comes to China, President Biden is taking a series of actions to explicitly contrast his trade and climate policies from those of his predecessor, Donald Trump, in the razor-tight 2024 election campaign. If successful, Biden’s actions can effectively neutralize Trump’s arguments on China and trade in key industrial swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And Biden will also increase his advantage on the climate issue, which is important to young voters and progressives. 

First, Biden is confronting China over its still-growing carbon dioxide emissions that are now nearly one-third of the global total, more than every developed country in the world combined. (U.S. emissions are a distant second, at about 13 percent.) Biden is driving home the key point to climate-focused voters that he can force China to reduce its greenhouse gas output, without which global emissions cannot possibly be cut to levels scientists find are needed to prevent climate catastrophe.  

Thus, Biden dispatched top U.S. international climate negotiator John Podesta to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Liu Zhenmin, in Washington last week to attempt to gain concessions by China over its coal use, which is greater than the U.S. and every other nation on Earth put together. Bloomberg news reported the two envoys had “in-depth discussions on how China could seriously consider slowing its construction of new coal plants while still meeting domestic power reliability goals,” according to an unnamed U.S. official, and on reducing the super climate pollutant methane.  

The Biden administration also intends to announce later this week a series of large tariffs against unfair Chinese clean energy tech exports like electric vehicles and other trade practices. Beijing’s massive subsidies have been going on since 2008, when China plowed a stunning $320 billion (in 2008 dollars) of direct government funding into two technologies: Chinese photovoltaic solar panels and lithium-ion electric batteries for EVs.  

These extraordinary expenditures have helped China dominate the global clean energy export market, with Chinese market share growing from about 25 percent to nearly 75 percent of the global market for PV solar panels and electric batteries over the last 15 years. China also fueled huge consumer and other subsidies, for example, providing a consumer subsidy of $10,000 per vehicle on 770,000 sold EVs in 2017. 

In response to this disparity, the Biden administration will be announcing the imposition of 100 percent tariffs on the importation of Chinese electric vehicles, according to numerous reports. “China is determined to dominate the future of the auto market, including by using unfair practices,” Biden said in February. “I’m not going to let that happen on my watch.” 

These new tariffs against Chinese vehicles will far outpace the 25 percent tariff put in place against Chinese EVs when Trump was in office, and which Biden retained. But suggestions by China that U.S. subsidies are greater than Chinese clean tech subsidies are preposterous; Podesta has called them “beyond ironic.” 

For example, in the U.S. 2009 stimulus just $2.3 billion went to the clean energy manufacturing tax credits, and hundreds of companies who applied received no money. Therefore, China provided approximately 150 times more funding to clean energy manufacturing than the U.S. did in 2008-2009 stimulus.

Even since 2022 passage of new clean energy tax incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act, the totality of U.S. support pales in comparison to more than 15 years of Chinese direct subsidies for manufacturers, consumers, regional and local governments — in what is still a quasi-command and control Beijing-directed economy.  

In contrast, when Donald Trump was in office, he deliberately undermined American competitiveness in the entire clean energy sector, especially regarding electric vehicles, at the behest of oil company giants, who are again large cash contributors in this year’s campaign. 

In December 2019, Trump killed congressional efforts to extend electric vehicle tax credits above 200,000 units per company, a threshold GM and Tesla had already hit. In fact, Trump opposes all EV consumer tax credits, as stated in each of his federal budget proposals while in office, despite pleas by the auto industry, auto workers, industrial states and economists that they are the key to the industry’s future. Trump’s nixing of the extension of the EV tax credits made by Tesla and GM badly hurt U.S. production, since those companies together make up more than 60 percent of the U.S. market. 

Now as a 2024 candidate, Trump has gone further, promising to end all support for EV or clean energy, despite the Biden’s legislative agenda unleashing hundreds of billions of new private-sector investments annually and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. Then Trump met with the oil industry and demanded $1 billion in campaign contributions for opposing EVs, calling it a “deal” for big oil. 

All evidence to the contrary, Trump has falsely claimed Biden’s EV policies could lead to a “bloodbath” in the U.S. economy. At a Michigan event in March, Trump repeatedly bashed Biden’s electric vehicle incentives, calling them “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard” and falsely predicting they would be a boon for Chinese and Mexican auto manufacturers.  

In fact, Biden has put in place a series of tax incentives that have prompted greater U.S. EV private-sector investment than any other region globally — more than tripling U.S. production in the last three years, with domestic EV sales in 2023 outpacing predictions by industry experts. And the new tariffs Biden will propose this week will prevent the U.S. auto sector from unfair competition, preventing what amounts to dumping of cheap, subsidies-fuel cars by China. 

Whether it’s trade policy, clean energy technology, or cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions while forcing other nations to act, Biden now has adopted a far more muscular set of policies that will backfoot Trump in key states that will decide the election. And, as usual, Trump has no serious response. 

Paul Bledsoe is professorial lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy in Washington. He served as a staff member in the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, Interior Department and the White House Climate Change Task Force under former President Bill Clinton. 

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