U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd R), joined by national security advisor Jake Sullivan (R), speaks while facing Yang Jiechi (2nd L), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, and Wang Yi (L), China’s foreign minister at the opening session of U.S.-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska on March 18, 2021.
Frederic J. Brown | AFP | Getty Images

Having long been at loggerheads over trade, technology and capital markets, the world’s foremost economic superpowers are turning their attention to climate change as the next path to commercial supremacy. 

China outspent the U.S. nearly two-to-one on energy transition-related investment between 2010 and 2020, according to BNEF data, Bank of America’s ESG Research team highlighted in a report last month.

Pressure points including “supply chain dominance, domestic-focused manufacturing policies, human rights-related laws and carbon-related trade tariffs,” BofA analysts said.

BofA Managing Director of Research Haim Israel said a “climate war” between Washington and Beijing would follow the tech war and trade war as climate change becomes the dominant economic and political theme of the coming decades.

“It’s not just about saving the planet. We believe climate strategies offer a route to global supremacy, as much more is at stake here: the economic impact of climate could reach $69 trillion this century, and energy transition investment needing to rise up to $4 trillion per year,” Israel said in a research note in February. 

“Energy independence and supply chain control are also at stake with the geopolitical balance of power also linked to peak oil in 2030.”

Israel told CNBC that the U.S. would look to ramp up legislation, innovation and capital flows into renewable energies such as wind, solar, batteries and hydrogen.

“We also see a ramp up in electric cars. Remember that today, give or take, 50% of all oil in the world is allocated to the transportation market, and cars is a big part of it. So whoever will control EVs and EV technology will definitely have a big advantage going forward,” he added.

Tensions between the U.S. and China have continued under President Joe Biden’s administration, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken conducting terse discussions with Chinese delegates in Alaska last month. 

Harry Broadman, managing director and chair of the emerging markets and CFIUS practices at Berkeley Research Group, told CNBC last week that developed countries’ ability to develop, execute and sell products that advance the climate agenda without negatively affecting the labor market would shape the economic landscape in the coming years. 

“As long as people believe that there is going to be a market for such technologies and that’s going to be dictated by how cheap it is, and whether it destroys jobs or creates jobs — it does not necessarily have to destroy jobs at all — that is going to be the driving imperative, and I think that race is already underway,” Broadman said. 

Ahead of the G-7 (Group of Seven) summit in Cornwall, U.K. in June, Broadman, a former assistant U.S. trade representative under the Bill Clinton administration, said the group of major economies will need to drastically evolve their research and development and sovereign-to-sovereign science and technology collaborations in order to compete with China. 

The ‘R&D7’ 

Broadman is pushing for an “R&D7” to be included on the G-7 agenda, similar to other working groups across members on issues of global importance. Its aim would be to reform the structure underlying the negotiation and execution of international science and technology agreements among G-7 countries. It would also form a standalone body tasked with ensuring that these agreements strengthen and recalibrate R&D collaboration within the G-7. 

“We’ve done really well among democratic countries collaborating on investment and trade but we’ve done an extraordinarily poor job in R&D, and this is where China is frankly a huge competitive, and potentially a huge economic and maybe geopolitical, threat,” he said. 

China has pledged net-zero carbon emissions by 2060, representing around two-thirds of the c. 48% of global emissions from countries operating net-zero pledges, according to a recent equity research report from Goldman Sachs. 

However, this could be a tall order, since China is the planet’s biggest polluter by some distance. The country accounts for around 30% of the world’s CO2 emissions, more than twice that of the U.S, and is rated by Climate Action Tracker as “highly insufficient” under the “fair share” principle in combating climate change.

Goldman analysts led by Equity Business Unit Leader Michele Della Vigna plotted the country’s potential path to net zero by sector and technology, laying out the $16 trillion of clean tech infrastructure investments China will need to embark on by 2060.  

Collectively, these could create 40 million net new jobs and drive economic growth, they projected, and would be based on three interconnected scalable technologies: electrification, green hydrogen and carbon capture. 

China’s spending on research and development climbed 10.3% to 2.44 trillion Chinese yuan ($378 billion) in 2020, outpacing the U.S., according to the nation’s National Bureau of Statistics.

‘China-centered orbit’

Meanwhile, Europe is home to eight of the 10 largest “clean tech” companies in the world, with potential for a four-fold increase globally in clean tech capacity by 2030, BofA analysts projected. Investors have also shown growing interest in companies seen as pioneering the energy transition, from electric vehicles to clean energy. 

As China finds itself “incrementally boxed out” of access to technologies from the U.S. and the rest of the G-7, Broadman suggested that a decoupling on standards would ensue, creating a “China-centered orbit” and a “G7-centered orbit” that would be unsustainable. 

“There can be only one sort of standard in the world from a pure economic perspective. The economies of scale are so powerful that if you have two co-existing standards, someone is going to lose money,” he explained.

“That’s why I think whoever wins that race is going to be on top. That race has begun and the G-7 have not pursued this through collective action, and that is what they have to do. Climate is just an extraordinarily critical case in point.”