Climate Cast ®

Trade dispute with China could slow transition to low-carbon power

Solar panels at Camp Ripley mirror the clouds
Camp Ripley's solar panels mirror the clouds in the sky while creating energy from the sun. Thursday, April 13, 2017, outside Little Falls, Minn.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

In his article this month in Science, Jonas Nahm says China — and improving trade relations with China — is critical to meeting global emissions goals.

China manufactures much of the world’s low-carbon energy technologies, including solar panels, wind turbine parts and batteries. Today, it produces 66 percent of all solar panels. That’s up from 1 percent in 2001.

“We need to reduce carbon emissions very quickly if we have any hope of meeting the Paris targets,” said Nahm, an assistant professor of energy, resources and environment at Johns Hopkins University. “China can help us meet these goals, and we won't be able to do it without them.”

Nahm said while U.S. companies can develop low-carbon technology, the labor market here lacks capacity to mass-manufacture that technology at the scale and price needed. He urged U.S. elected officials and companies to overcome existing conflicts and partner with China.

“The trade situation right now is not looking great from a climate perspective. If we are not buying Chinese solar panels or wind turbine components or batteries, these technologies are going to be more expensive here, which is going to make it harder for American consumers or American utilities to decarbonize,” Nahm said. “On the Chinese side, the unsettled trade relationships are causing problems in the economy domestically, and so China is also being more cautious about investing in new kinds of technologies.

“And the latest plans from the Chinese central government show that there might be a possibility of China shifting back to coal because it's worried about the economy,” he added.

To hear the full interview with Nahm, hit play on the audio player above.