US confronts climate, China, as Republican lawmakers worry about Africa

Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives are expected to introduce a bill that would “reduce American dependence on critical minerals obtained from China and African nations,” a spokesperson for Republicans on the House Committee on Natural Resources told The Hill on Monday.

This and another piece of GOP “environmental legislation” come as Republicans in both houses of Congress rail against President Biden’s infrastructure plan; they argue it includes Democratic “slush-funds” for non-infrastructure related measures, such as for climate change, and actually “undermines” the U.S. economy.

Although there are deep cleavages between Democrats and Republicans over how to combat climate change, both parties – though not quite in lock-step –  and the Biden administration are concerned about economic competitiveness and the viability of the nation’s “critical supply chains,” mainly in response to Chinese investments and anticipated dominance in cutting-edge consumer and military technologies ­as well as U.S. reliance on China as a source of “critical and rare earth minerals,” all which threaten U.S. national security. (The Biden administration also sees climate change as a threat to national security).

On competition with China: “Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has instructed eight separate Senate committees to quickly prepare China related bills in the coming weeks, with instructions to make the bills as bi-partisan as possible,” Josh Rogin, a political analyst at CNN wrote in the Washington Post. The aim of this legislation is “to drastically increase the resources and attention the United States is committing to competition with China on the economic, manufacturing, and scientific front.”

Although it is not clear when the full Senate will vote on this package, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced it would get the ball rolling and vote on its bill, the “Strategic Competition Act of 2021,” tomorrow on April 14.         

The Biden administration, for its part, is in the process of conducting an interagency “100-day review of its critical supply chains,” which according to a February Executive Order focuses on those related to semiconductors and high-capacity batteries, including electric-vehicle batteries. Supply chains for pharmaceuticals and agricultural commodities are also being reviewed.

The Biden administration also seeks to bolster the U.S. industrial base, as reconfirmed in a meeting with business executives on the semiconductor supply shortage on Monday.

Although an update is required, the Biden administration, for now, employs the previous administration’s definition of “critical minerals”. A September 2020 Executive Order states the then-Secretary of the Interior identified a total of 35 minerals “essential to the economic and national security of the United States,” and which “have supply chains that are ‘vulnerable to disruption’”.

Of particular concern to the Trump administration were minerals the U.S. continues to rely heavily on China to supply, such as barite used in hydraulic fracking and graphite used in advanced batteries. Even more concerning are those the U.S. doesn’t produce and which are almost exclusively produced in China, such as gallium used in semiconductors and high-purity graphite used in rechargeable batteries, the Order said.  

No minerals from African countries were mentioned in the Trump Order, and it’s not clear what minerals the forthcoming Republican legislation will target.

Of note, however, is that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) produces a majority of the world’s cobalt – used in lithium-ion batteries. Although the U.S. sources cobalt from multiple suppliers, the DRC produced 67 percent of the global total ­­in 2020, according to Statistica. Also noteworthy, South Africa accounts for 95 percent of the world’s platinum-metal reserves; these metals have various applications including for petrochemical, automobile, and defense sectors.

Moving back to climate change, Politico obtained an internal Senate GOP memo that claims spending on infrastructure accounts for just 5 percent of the “American Jobs Plan,” though it narrowly defines infrastructure as “roads and bridges”.

The Biden administration sees infrastructure as both a cause of and solution to climate change as well as a source of new jobs; its definition, in addition to roads and bridges, includes rail, public transit, broadband, electric grid and vehicles, renewable energy, and buildings. According to a Harvard- Harris poll cited in the GOP memo, “The Majority of Americans,” 56 percent of voters do not see infrastructure and climate change as related.

Paradoxically then, is GOP Rep. Bruce Westerman’s (R-AK) reintroduction of  “the Trillion Trees Act of 2020,” which, as a carbon sequestration strategy, has a goal of planting 1 trillion trees around the world by 2050 – 24 billion trees in the U.S. according to the first version of the bill.

But even 60 billion trees planted by 2040 would only remove about 10 percent of annual U.S. GHG emissions from the atmosphere, according to the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank. The think tank estimates the annual cost would be roughly what the U.S. spends annually on fossil fuel subsidies. Globally, countries that have undertaken significant tree planting initiatives include China, India, and Ethiopia.

“Republicans plan to unveil the measures next week to coincide with Earth Day, ahead of a planned White House-hosted climate summit with other world leaders next Thursday,” The Hill reported.

Although it’s not clear what additional measures will be included, House Republicans are unlikely to propose “mandatory greenhouse gas emission caps” – as Biden has through an energy efficiency standard included in his budget – or “carbon pricing.” Commentators have argued that the latter can be seen as a conservative, or right-wing, approach to addressing climate change and an opportunity for Republican lawmakers to demonstrate commitment to solving the climate crisis. The fact that Biden’s proposed legislation doesn’t include a price on carbon, however, may signal that Democrats don’t think it’s politically feasible.

But if China’s “emission-trading scheme” finally gets off the ground, they may think otherwise.

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