If the Covid crisis is a window into our climate change future as billionaire Bill Gates and journalist Emily Atkin have suggested, then it’s worth digging into this comparison. Deaths from the pandemic are down 1/3 from just a month ago as vaccines have become available and administered. In vaccine rollout’s early days, concerns centered on prioritization and difficulties in the last mile (getting shots into people). Now, however, the limiting factor in the United States and especially globally is clearly supply. Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker puts the US as likely to hit the 75% vaccinated benchmark in around 7 months, but at the current pace, its global estimate is that it will take fully 4.5 years (as of 2 March 2021).
Scientists and companies, with government support, produced amazing vaccines in record time. But we did not do—and are not doing—everything possible to ramp up their production. More factories could be built, and even if the best time to build them was months ago, the second best time is now. Additionally, the ability to ramp up production quickly would be deeply appreciated if a variant arrived that escaped our current vaccine regimen and required another round of global inoculation. The “historic partnership” between Merck and Johnson & Johnson that Biden announced today goes a long way towards focusing on making more shots as soon as possible.
The climate change analogue to vaccines is renewable energy. The good news is that the wind and solar technology already works and is affordable. Like with vaccines, there are lots of issues related to the last mile—difficulties in siting wind farms and utility-scale solar plants, zoning rules preventing distributed rooftop solar installation, Kafka-esque bureaucratic processes needed to improve the distribution and transmission grids to deal with wind and solar’s variable production. But what is less obvious is that there is a massive need to scale up the production capacity of the renewable industry globally.
During the campaign, Biden ran on building a 100% clean power sector by 2035. But achieving our climate goals involves not only replacing all fossil electricity production with renewables, but to electrify everything else—cars, industrial processes, heating, cooking—that currently runs on burning fossil fuels. This transition creates even more need for renewables and demand for adequate production facilities. Internationally, pledges under the Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are falling far short of what is needed.
While the wind sector is globally competitive and diversified, increasingly Chinese manufacturers have come to dominate the solar supply chain. A new joint CSIS/BloombergNEF report on the solar photovoltaic (PV) sector shows both the polysilicon and wafer (95%) stages almost completely controlled by Chinese firms while cells and modules remain more diversified. Geopolitical reasons to diversity alone could counsel subsidies to support domestic manufacturing, but so too do issues related to human rights as almost half of all polysilicon production is located in Xinjiang as well as the fact that they are located there do to cheap coal-based electricity as electricity represents roughly 40% of the costs of producing polysilicon. Further, these intense industrial processes can fail, and do so catastrophically, as happened at a GCL-Poly production facility in Xinjiang when explosions on 21 July 2020 took it offline. Floods and fires took other facilities offline in 2020, and climate change is only like to increase the chances of weather calamities leading to shutdowns and price increases.
Since Xi Jinping’s surprise 2060 carbon neutrality pledge in September, markets have pushed GCL-Poly’s stock up dramatically and the fortune of founder, Zhu Gongshan, into the multiple billions. The world needs more solar power, and more production facilities to build it. Resiliency, not efficiency, needs to be the watchword.