Can the birth of climate competition spur a global race to the top?

photo credit | Alain Lacroix,

After years of advocacy on climate, nature and development, I’ve returned to school to study public policy at Harvard, which is considered one of the “best universities in the world” (heavy on the quotations). This experience has been many things – deeply frustrating, enlightening, energizing, and concerning. While there is much to debrief, I’d like to focus on some insights gained on a student trip to Washington DC to meet with the US government and leading organizations on climate and energy.

The resounding take-away: We are moving away from an era of climate cooperation to climate competition – from the spirit of a community potluck to an envisioned race to the “top”.

The era of climate competition fully mobilizes the economic interests of a state by focusing on cultivating competitive green industries within a new global economy. This initiative extends beyond environmental ministers, and instead, is stewarded by energy, industry, and finance ministers. President Biden’s major legislative initiatives exemplify this competition, incentivizing manufacturing for American-made green energy products, a departure from the ethics of globalization where in theory the cheapest product would run supreme. There is no doubt that concerns around energy independence due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict have led the US and many other countries to see clean energy products as a matter of national security. While this is a rational approach from the state’s perspective, I’m curious to explore the global implications of such a shift from collaboration to competition.

Will greater independence lead to high costs and slower uptake? 

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in policy school, it’s that politicians don’t listen to economists.

A globalized supply chain for solar panels has saved countries $67 billion. This global collaboration has saved America 24 billion to date and significantly lowered the price to enable deployment.

Yet it seems hard for the government to view this as a success when 80% of the solar panel supply chain is currently owned by China, a nation that’s spent nearly 10 times as much on solar manufacturing as the US and Europe combined. While the US should certainly mobilize its private sector and capital to play a larger role in manufacturing, there’s an active question of where we draw the line of protectionism.

Frustrated by American policies, European leaders are claiming this aggressive approach is a violation of World Trade Organization rules. From my read, the US is relatively unfazed, believing that the EU will quickly enact policies in a similar direction – hence the beginning of the “race to the top.”

What does this mean for the world? Well Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, head of the WTO, is urging countries to not make this moment a green subsidy war as it will have a substantial cost to the global economy.

Will competition simply reproduce the status quo? 

While I believe in sound industrial policy, I find myself bristling at the notion of climate competition which – to me – implies there will be winners and losers, the recreation of a zero-sum game where one must come out on top.

I’m not really convinced that we know how to embark on a race to develop competitive industries without reproducing the status quo of inequality. During the trip, I heard about how the Department of Energy is organizing itself to be a bridge to bankability for scaling new climate technologies – effectively de-risking and working closely with start-ups to provide market insights and set programmatic targets. But where is equity in this conversation? To what degree are the start-ups and business models actively being curated also taking care to not re-produce the same dynamics which fuel inequality or put a few companies at the top? I’ve heard a lot about a clean energy transition but not a “just transition” one that is inclusive, fair, and creates decent job opportunities. 

If our most recent global crisis offers insight into how we may respond to the next – the 10 richest men in the world have doubled their wealth since the start of the pandemic while the incomes of the 99% have been worse off. I worry we greatly underestimate the work required to shift these dynamics and are, in fact, not even talking about it. 

How can we make an era of climate competition work for all? 

Does this in itself present a contradiction? I’m challenging my mind to work through a complex question that calls for a nuanced approach, or perhaps, an outright rejection. We will undoubtedly need a new political economy and a variety of skill sets, from sociologists and community organizers, to drive progress. We will need collaboration, and equitable distribution of benefits, what else? How might we ensure this era doesn’t create new problems or reinforce existing inequalities, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.


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