Froma Harrop: America is going green big time. Are we mean?
From the commentary: ... The biggest prize here may be more cosmic — a huge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Joe Biden's America has embarked on a muscular industrial policy aimed at curbing climate change, building U.S. manufacturing and competing with China. That's a lot of going on, though the broader public doesn't seem to be paying it much mind. Unidentified flying objects make for better visuals.
Our trading partners, on the other hand, are quite focused on — and rattled by — the unleashing of U.S. government subsidies, direct and indirect, for domestic industry. With the scales weighted on buying American products, there's been an explosion of activity making everything from electric vehicles to solar panels to equipment for capturing carbon.
The Biden administration is reversing decades of American economic policy that relied on free trade deals, tax cuts and less regulation for growth. The Inflation Reduction Act has made being green not only easier but quite profitable, too.
There's been a parallel push in turning the U.S. into a major maker of semiconductors — part of a bigger plan to bring home supply chains frayed by COVID. The West is especially concerned that Taiwan, the dominant producer of chips, could be taken over by China. (The CHIPS Act enjoyed considerable bipartisan support.)
U.S. automakers are betting that the generous tax credits for purchasing American-made electric vehicles will supercharge demand for them. Ford's storied River Rouge complex outside Detroit provides perhaps the most vivid symbol of the industrial revival. In the 1930s, its assembly line pushed out a new car every 49 seconds. River Rouge is now producing Ford's F-150 Lightning, the electric version of the bestselling pickup. There are tax credits for making them as well.
The law subsidizes a variety of investments in clean power, especially for operations that purchase American equipment. Solar panels? China currently makes 75% of the world's finished solar panels. Thanks to the "Buy American" push, Credit Suisse expects U.S.-made solar panels to meet 90% of U.S. demand by 2030.
This Buy American push is understandably not very popular with some of our trading partners, many of whom are good friends. South Korea is especially unhappy about the subsidies being poured onto U.S. makers of electric vehicles.
News that Northvolt, a Swedish battery maker, is showing interest in expanding operations in America set off jitters in Europe. The European Commission has just said it would help its members expand green manufacturing.
Other countries are asking what ever happened to our free-trade ethic. Some complain that these U.S. government subsidies are unfair and un-American — possibly even French.
The U.S. response is that the piles of money being poured into developing green technologies will produce opportunities for everyone. The science can be shared.
But the biggest prize here may be more cosmic — a huge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. government now forecasts that in seven short years, America will have cut its emissions to 60% of their level in 2005. That would be a remarkable event putting our emissions 10 percentage points below what they would have otherwise been.
This said, hopes that U.S. manufacturing jobs will explode as a result may be overblown. Robots and other automation will be doing much of the work (as is already the case). But the people employed in these factories can expect to make more money.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' list of the 20 occupations likely to grow fastest puts wind-turbine technicians in second place. And new jobs in green energy will be replacing jobs lost in the carbon economy. The law cleverly promotes manufacturing in the very places that are losing fossil-fuel employment.
America is going green big time. Is it being mean in the process? Our investors and workers probably won't think so.
Froma Harrop is an American writer and author. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @FromaHarrop.