Xi Thinks China Can Slow Climate Change. What if He’s Right?

At first glance, Xi Jinping seems to have lost the plot.

China’s president appears to be smothering the entrepreneurial dynamism that allowed his country to crawl out of poverty and become the factory of the world. He has brushed aside Deng Xiaoping’s maxim “To get rich is glorious” in favor of centralized planning and Communist-sounding slogans like “ecological civilization” and “new, quality productive forces,” which have prompted predictions of the end of China’s economic miracle.

But Mr. Xi is, in fact, making a decades-long bet that China can dominate the global transition to green energy, with his one-party state acting as the driving force in a way that free markets cannot or will not. His ultimate goal is not just to address one of humanity’s most urgent problems — climate change — but also to position China as the global savior in the process.

It has already begun. In recent years, the transition away from fossil fuels has become Mr. Xi’s mantra and the common thread in China’s industrial policies. It’s yielding results: China is now the world’s leading manufacturer of climate-friendly technologies, such as solar panels, batteries and electric vehicles. Last year the energy transition was China’s single biggest driver of overall investment and economic growth, making it the first large economy to achieve that.

This raises an important question for the United States and all of humanity: Is Mr. Xi right? Is a state-directed system like China’s better positioned to solve a generational crisis like climate change, or is a decentralized market approach — i.e., the American way — the answer?

How this plays out could have serious implications for American power and influence.

Look at what happened in the early 20th century, when fascism posed a global threat. America entered the fight late, but with its industrial power — the arsenal of democracy — it emerged on top. Whoever unlocks the door inherits the kingdom, and the United States set about building a new architecture of trade and international relations. The era of American dominance began.

Climate change is, similarly, a global problem, one that threatens our species and the world’s biodiversity. Where do Brazil, Pakistan, Indonesia and other large developing nations that are already grappling with the effects of climate change find their solutions? It will be in technologies that offer an affordable path to decarbonization, and so far, it’s China that is providing most of the solar panels, electric cars and more. China’s exports, increasingly led by green technology, are booming, and much of the growth involves exports to developing countries.

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