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COMMENTARY: Biden’s Anti-NAFTA Moment is Here 

THE AFRO — The Chinese government has not played fair. It overproduces in order to flood global markets. It has leaned on exports of “bifacial” (basically, two-sided) solar panels, which were foolishly exempt under the Trump-era solar tariffs – with 98 percent of Chinese solar panel imports to our country now being bifacial. And the Commerce Department is now investigating how China has allegedly used countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand as pass-throughs to route solar products to the US and evade tariffs.

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Ben Jealous is the executive director of the Sierra Club and a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ben Jealous is the executive director of the Sierra Club and a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

By Ben Jealous | The AFRO

Ben Jealous is the executive director of the Sierra Club and a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania. This week he discusses America’s ability to lead the clean energy revolution.

The Biden-Harris administration is making bold moves to ensure America leads the global clean energy economy of the 21st century.

We are at the crossroads of our country’s next major shift in trade policy and domestic manufacturing that will define our economy for decades. The last time we were here was more than 30 years ago. I was helping to organize the movement to stop the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The framework being put forward this time, by the current administration, is the anti-NAFTA moment American workers have been waiting for. I am organizing in support of it.

The tariffs announced this month on electric vehicles (EVs), solar panels, batteries, semiconductors and materials like aluminum and steel are part of a broader regime of policies and investments creating the foundation for America’s leadership in the next economy.

These tariffs are part of a smart, targeted approach that stands at odds with the flailing, nonstrategic approach of his predecessor. They show the president understands the threats posed by China and has the courage to take them on in a real and impactful way.

And the administration gets that tariffs are just one piece of the puzzle. In his remarks at the signing ceremony for the tariffs, Biden highlighted his bipartisan infrastructure law’s investment in building 500,000 EV charging stations nationwide and the “thousands and thousands of jobs” it would create. The tariffs will help ensure the aluminum, steel, solar panels, and other components and materials for these charging stations are American-made. And that means even more good American jobs.

NAFTA cost our country hundreds of thousands of jobs and devastated America’s manufacturing sector. By contrast, Biden’s trade policies, coupled with other policies and investments, have the power to create a green jobs boom and birth a new manufacturing renaissance. Companies have already announced over $825 billion in private sector investments in US manufacturing and clean energy since Biden took office. All of this is key not only to long-term job creation, but to stopping China’s domination of the next economy.

A future in which China holds all the economic cards is one in which climate change is allowed to run rampant. Even though manufacturing in the United States is 3.2 times more carbon efficient than manufacturing in China, China has a grip on more than 80 percent of the world’s solar manufacturing. China produces 58 percent of all new electric vehicles sold worldwide. In 2022, China accounted for about 59 percent of global primary aluminum production and 54 percent of the world’s crude steel production.

All that manufacturing is energy intensive, especially for steel and aluminum. And in China that energy comes primarily from coal – the dirtiest energy source there is.

China is the world’s largest consumer of coal – with 56 percent of global consumption in 2020, according to the International Energy Agency. That coal reliance makes carbon emissions from Chinese steel production as much as double that from American steel. It adds to the urgency of seizing market share from China and using our own domestic manufacturing to help expand the market. And it is why the president paired his tariffs on Chinese solar with tariffs on aluminum and a $500 million investment in the first aluminum smelter in the US in 45 years. Imagine that new aluminum plant being built with modern protections against pollution and powered by American-produced solar panels made with the plant’s own aluminum. That is what President Biden imagined. And he is making it happen.

The Chinese government has not played fair. It overproduces in order to flood global markets. It has leaned on exports of “bifacial” (basically, two-sided) solar panels, which were foolishly exempt under the Trump-era solar tariffs – with 98 percent of Chinese solar panel imports to our country now being bifacial. And the Commerce Department is now investigating how China has allegedly used countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand as pass-throughs to route solar products to the US and evade tariffs.

The Biden administration’s trade policy in this area can help make China more of an honest broker. But even that is no substitute for owning the manufacturing and supply chains of the staple goods that will power our next economy. And let us not forget the national pride Americans once felt in the products invented and built by American hands.

The US automobile industry is a great example. The future of automobiles is electric. If we do not invest heavily in US EV production, we cede important ground to our primary global competitor. And we leave behind the current and future auto workers who will benefit from robust domestic EV production. But President Biden’s policies once again show he has the whole picture in mind. He is not simply putting a tariff on EV’s and expecting us to dominate. He is investing in the supply chain and protecting it – with tariffs on the aluminum, steel, semiconductors, and chips that are all vital to EV manufacturing (EVs use twice as many chips as gas-powered cars).

At the end of the day, we must invest in domestic growth of the industries at the center of the emerging global economy. If we fail, we allow China to dominate that economy and risk taking steps backwards in our efforts to curb climate change and save our planet. The Biden administration is showing its keen understanding of what is needed to tackle that challenge and build a strong future for American workers at the same time.

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