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New York Times Misleads on U.S.-China Renewable Energy Trade

Last Thursday, the New York Times’s Michael Forsythe breathlessly reported:  

China intends to spend more than $360 billion through 2020 on renewable power sources like solar and wind, the government’s energy agency said on Thursday.

The country’s National Energy Administration laid out a plan to dominate one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, just at a time when the United States is set to take the opposite tack as Donald J. Trump, a climate-change doubter, prepares to assume the presidency …

But even disregarding the threat of climate change, China’s announcement was a bold claim on leadership in the renewable energy industry

Sam Geall, executive editor of Chinadialogue, an English- and Chinese-language website that focuses on the environment, said that the United States, by moving away from a focus on reducing carbon emissions, risked losing out to China in the race to lead the industry

The investment commitment made by the Chinese, combined with Mr. Trump’s moves, means jobs that would have been created in the United States may instead go to Chinese workers.

I formatted the language that demonstrates how the reporter frames the story with a supposed competition between the U.S. and China for global supremacy in green energy. This putative rivalry is a common trope in the ongoing debate over climate policy.

As I read the story, one misleading fact impressed me, because it demonstrates the fatal flaw in the reasoning that there is some sort of great green race among countries of the world. In the article, the Times journalist reports that “Chinese companies, buoyed by a huge domestic market, are already among the world’s dominant players [in renewable energy manufacturing],” and thereby implies that strong domestic demand is the cause behind the green energy growth in China. In fact, China’s green industry has been and will remain export-focused.

Of course, the source of demand for Chinese renewable energy exports are countries, like the U.S. and Europe, that have mandated and subsidized green energy. And this gets directly to the underlying absurdity of a supposed international competition to lead in green energy manufacturing, which I’ve previously explained:

Renewable energy sources like solar and wind power are expensive and unreliable, so they cannot compete with conventional energy sources in the electricity market … [As a result,] the market for green energy is wholly a function of government favors. Unfortunately for the green energy industry, political winds are quick to change. As costs mount, politicians will rescind the government’s support, and markets will crash … Plainly, so-called “sustainable” energy is reliant on unsustainable government support. It should go without saying that this is a poor business model. When the renewable energy bubble bursts, the global industry leader will be the biggest loser. With that in mind, the supposed race with China for green technological supremacy is one the U.S. would be wise to forfeit.