Cashing in on Sino-US 'green' race

Cashing in on Sino-US 'green' race

In this 2018 file photo, villagers from Songkhla's Thepha district rally against coal-fired power plants. If Thailand is really serious about climate change, it needs to completely scrap this fossil fuel as a source of energy.
In this 2018 file photo, villagers from Songkhla's Thepha district rally against coal-fired power plants. If Thailand is really serious about climate change, it needs to completely scrap this fossil fuel as a source of energy.

After taking office as the president of the United States last month, Joe Biden has been translating his campaign promises on climate change into action, with the support from the young, progressive wing in the Democrat party. Among the highlights in his proposals include pledges for net-zero emissions and a 100% clean energy economy by 2050 -- a clear reversal from Donald Trump, a climate change denier who had a cosy relationship with the fossil fuel industry.

In his first week at the White House, Mr Biden ordered the immediate rejoining of the Paris Agreement, a global agreement to limit the rise in global temperatures, and appointed John Kerry as a Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.

Additionally, he authorised the move to switch all 650,000 government cars to electric vehicles, which could potentially cost up to US$20 billion (about 597.5 billion baht), and revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial project to bring dirty tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to the US.

The quick rollout of these policies is a bold statement by Mr Biden which suggests the US's seriousness in tackling climate change, and the world is sure to benefit from it. The US is the world's biggest economy, the second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and it possesses an efficient tech sector that, with support from the government, could spearhead the critical push to lower carbon emissions through innovation.

Nevertheless, this is also more than just about the environment and climate change. Equally, it is about international politics and the so-called "geopolitics of climate change".

In the struggle to maintain its position as a global leader, the US has a major rival -- China. While some may condemn China as the world's biggest polluter; it has managed to place itself in a leading role against climate change, especially in the four years of US absence. It has an ambitious target -- aiming to become carbon neutral by 2060 -- and it invested up to 2.5 trillion yuan (about 11.5 trillion baht) in renewable energy between 2017-20.

This resulted in some 344 Chinese cities being able to have subsidy-free, local solar systems which can produce cheaper electricity than the national grid. Furthermore, the systems in 75 cities can now compete with coal-fired power plants, the cheapest, but dirtiest, type of fuel.

With the progress in China, the US is unlikely to return to its former position of hegemonic dominance in the climate change arena. Today, in the bipolar order with the US and China at the helm, how they manage their relationship is vital. There are two differing scenarios that could materialise: "Dual Leadership" and a "Green Arms Race".

The "Dual Leadership" scenario drifts towards the return of Obama-era policies, where mutual efforts to combat climate change steadied an otherwise rocky relationship between the two, especially following the rise of Xi Jinping and his nationalist rhetoric.

The "Green Arms Race", meanwhile, foresees a healthy competitive relationship where both superpowers strive to be the first to unlock new ideas and methods to combat climate change -- from racing to lowering the costs of currently existing solar energy and electric vehicles, to unearthing revolutionary game-changers such as carbon-neutral fuels, advanced geothermal, or carbon removal technology.

While we witness the expeditious global transition towards fighting climate change, it is essential for Thailand to anticipate the changing landscape and strategise on how to capitalise on the plethora of potential "green" opportunities. The sooner we choose our position, the earlier we can stake our claims, and the more advantages we will have.

In addition to domestic environmental policies and pro-active international roles, both the US and China will emphasise bolstering their private sector, especially their "clean-tech" or "green" industries. While the US will have to restart from the back-foot, China has continuously shown impressive strides on this front. The "Made in China 2025" plan, intended to transform the country's image from a low-end manufacturer to a high-value producer, reiterated the country's focus on innovation-driven development. Green energy and vehicles are unquestionably among the key industries under this plan.

In the near future, the US and Chinese private sectors will be looking to expand their global footprint, competing hard to dominate various markets as governments around the world switch to pro-environment policies, thus robustly escalating the demand for green technologies.

While there is a strong sentiment for de-globalisation across different industries, many analyse that the "clean tech" industry will go in the opposite direction -- the prime example being Tesla's expansion into China. The growth of this industry is a golden opportunity for Thailand to capitalise on many of these companies' supply chains, or even become their preferred destination for a regional headquarters.

Regarding the supply chain, the rapid proliferation of countless new green technologies will be accompanied by a growing demand for new components. For example, in addition to batteries, the supply chain of EVs includes microchips needed for the heavily anticipated autopilot function, and light aluminium frames, which are preferred by manufacturers over traditional metal chassis.

Moreover, as the world becomes more aware of responsible production and consumption, the supply chain will also have to deal with the products' afterlife. While the focal point of solar energy policy is the vigorous advocacy for installation; discussions on what to do with the expired panels, given their 30-year lifespan, is minimal. Packed with valuable components that can be reused and recycled, the end-cycle for solar panels can offer other opportunities.

Further, Thailand can look to attract multinational green companies to invest in the country. The Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) has the infrastructure needed, and many of the 10 "S-Curve" industries overlap with the forthcoming green technologies: from next-generation automotive, to smart electronics, biofuels and biochemicals. The progress of its infrastructure projects, as well as its prime geographic location, should make Thailand a magnet for foreign investments, especially with China no longer an obvious destination.

However, it is not an easy task, with abundant competition from other Asean states hoping to benefit from these opportunities as well.

On Feb 4, Indonesia announced that Tesla will submit a proposal to establish a car battery factory and energy storage system in the country. Thailand must regard this as a missed opportunity and must assess why the company chose Indonesia -- with its archipelagic nature making logistics a challenging task -- while its political environment is, similar to Thailand, far from ideal.

The role of the Chinese government in promoting its "green" industry abroad will be vital. As the struggle to become the global climate leader continues, it won't be surprising to see China offering many opportunities to neighbours, as it seeks to defend its regional influence. While its "clean tech" players may primarily focus on championing its mammoth domestic market, China will look to export more of its products to strengthen their image as global leader. Thailand will naturally benefit from this.

To compete for opportunities in the global "green" industry, Thailand must show to the world its seriousness in combatting climate change. It can be shown through policies -- starting from promoting more than merely utility-scale solar power generators in the residential sector or proposing a comprehensive plan for 100% phase-out of coal-fired power plants.

It can also be shown through public image, so it is vital for Thailand to promote its "niche" on the climate change agenda. The government should promote certain technologies and/or methods that the global community acknowledges and accepts Thailand to be the best at. This could very well be the biofuel and biochemical sector, or even floating solar panels industry, following the announcement of Egat's 45W Hydro-Floating Solar Hybrid project at Sirindhorn Dam, the largest in the world.

While traditionally one sees environmental protection as contradictory to economic progress, today the opposite has occurred, following an unprecedented burst in economic and investment opportunities.

Whether one cares about climate change or not, the "green industry" is the future and it is here to stay. If Thailand takes too long to realise this, it will look back and regret the great missed opportunity that was right under its nose.

Pornphrom Vikitsreth teaches at the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Thammasat University.

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