The drive in from China’s Changchun airport to downtown takes about 30 minutes and as you near its end you pass two enormous power plants — one nuclear, belching steam, the other coal-fired with smokestacks puffing out sooty emissions.

As you enter the city core, the power-plant effects become obvious and weirdly disorientating: soot and steam combine to leave the city of Changchun perpetually covered in a layer of wet ash that at first glance looks like a gentle winter snowfall. Only when it hits the windshield of your car do you recognize it for the filthy grime of an ongoing environmental catastrophe. For the Chinese government, pollution was the price of progress.

A 1958 photo of FAW engineers showing a Dongfeng CA71 to Chairman Mao. Source: FAW

You see, Changchun is home to First Auto Works, the very first Chinese carmaker founded my Mao himself in 1953. Through the ‘50s, FAW spat out vehicles based on relatively primitive Soviet technology. They were horrible little claptraps: unreliable, underpowered, poorly engineered and unattainable for almost every Chinese not a party member.

Ah, but since then, FAW has become China’s fourth-largest automaker, a state-run behemoth that employs thousands, produces tens of thousands of vehicles and is laid out in a sprawling mass of buildings that include not just factories, but a hospital, stores and dormitories for employees who often send home money to their families far away. FAW is also a centre for electric vehicle research, development and production.

I first went there a decade ago, long, long before Chinese President Xi Jinping last year announced his country’s intention to reach peak emissions by 2030 and be carbon neutral before 2060. Then, while Beijing was buried under a layer of smog and Changchun looked and felt like the set of a horror movie about the end of time, the Chinese government was focused on industrialization at any cost – including the environment.

FAW’s main entrance today.
– Source: FAW

In Changchun, my eyes burned, my throat was scratchy, my lungs felt tight and my white shirts were grey by lunchtime. I saw no evidence of a concern for the environment whatsoever. But I did see some measure of care for the workers in FAW factories.

The assembly lines I toured reflected a concern for health and safety protocols down to the smallest details. Even a generous lunch was provided for the workers. I, in fact, joined them for a tin plate of noodles, vegetables, some sort of protein (I think) and tea. I had the sense that many had never seen a westerner like me, not one in the flesh. They were friendly and welcoming and amazed that I could work a pair of chopsticks.

The entire FAW factory complex was modern and clean, though like the city core, smeared by a layer of soot and grime. One factory I toured represented a joint venture with Volkswagen’s Audi luxury brand, where assemblers were piecing together Q5 crossovers under the watchful eye of paternalistic German engineers armed with translators to ensure their messages were understood.

Changchun, where China’s first auto company was founded, is west of the Sea of Japan and northeast from Beijing. -Source: Google Maps

I am telling you all this now because I want you to understand that China is a very serious competitor on all fronts – social, cultural, economic and political. In the years since my visit to Changchun, as Foreign Affairs points out, China has pivoted from environmental outcast to the county “now winning the global race to invent and manufacture the technologies that will allow a new low-carbon world. Europe, which has made its own commitment to become climate neutral by 2050, is not far behind.”

Canada, one of the world’s largest oil producers, has indeed implemented a carbon tax that suggests seriousness on the climate front, too, but our federalist system has left the country as a whole with a confused national agenda. The government in Ottawa expresses its climate-concern sensibilities at every opportunity, true, but we should not kid ourselves – nearly a quarter of our economy is based on carbon exploitation.

And change is not easy for a country in which the provinces wield enormous power and influence. Alberta, Saskatchewan and to a lesser extent Manitoba, all have governments actively opposed to putting a price on carbon. British Columbia and Ontario land somewhere close to the government in Ottawa, while Quebec has gone all-in on the “green” revolution with support for electric vehicles renewable energy companies and fierce opposition to pipelines.

But I am hopeful that world events will push Canada as a whole to make the kind of pivot China has made in the past decade. That is, as Foreign Affairs notes, “In 2018, Chinese companies made up over a third of the world’s manufacturers of wind turbines. In 2019, the country built over 70 per cent of the world’s solar photovoltaics. In electric vehicles, China’s command is even greater: It holds almost three-fourths of the world’s manufacturing capacity for lithium-ion battery cells, and it controls even more of the supply chain before the final assembly. Of the three big green energy technologies taking off around the world, then, two are largely made in China with a good portion of the third made there as well.”

JLR is in part pinning its future on China and EVs. JLR aims to reinvent itself as an ESG car company. New models and new ways to power them are coming.

Then there is the United States, whose economy is larger than China’s but which was hobbled for half a decade by a staggeringly ignorant science-denying president and his foolish followers. President Biden has now unveiled a US$2 trillion infrastructure plan which, as The New York Times notes, is aimed at “tackling climate change in part by spending up to US$174 billion to encourage Americans to switch to cars and trucks that run on electricity, not gasoline or diesel.”

There is something slightly ironic, even amusing, to find that the oldest person every to assume the U.S. presidency is pushing for what amounts to a Green New Deal and “win the EV market” even as a ruthless Chinese autocrat is leading China shift to a renewable future.

Biden’s plan, as The Globe and Mail notes, proposes US$100-billion “for the grid in his infrastructure plan, plus tax incentives for renewables” There will be funding for “a national network of 500,000 charging stations, and new tax incentives and purchase rebates, could put the U.S. ahead in reducing transportation emissions. But an explicit aim is also to provide funding and strategic support to help U.S. manufacturers take a dominant role in EV production, through the supply chain.”

Biden, when vice-president in the Obama administration, spent an enormous amount of time with his then-counterpart, Xi Jinping. He has talked frequently and openly about Xi, referring to the Chinese president’s intelligence, cunning and cutthroat competitiveness. Biden has looked across the Pacific and taken the measure of his rival in the context of climate change, and concluded that a “green” shift will be the centrepiece of his economic recovery plan.

GM’s new logo is a stylized wall plug.

Where does that leave Canada? We face both opportunity and threat.

The opportunity exists for this country to fund its own Green New Deal with the carbon dollars we mine from the ground today. And there are signs in Canada of what’s possible. Homegrown auto suppliers such as Magna and Linamar are on the leading edge of developing components and even entire platforms for EVs. Ford Motor and General Motors have committed to billion-dollar investments in EV manufacturing. Renewable energy companies such as Algonquin Power and Brookfield Renewable are at the cutting edge of a green energy transition which will trigger innovation and creativity if done well and successfully.

The threat is that we refuse to change or make our moves too late to be on the leading edge of this transition. Premiers such as Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe, both rooted in old thinking and ideological stagnation, represent the kind of mindset that threatens our economic future and the well being of not just Canada, but the planet. By opposing something as simple and logical as putting a price on carbon, they create a barrier to the kind of change being led by China and the new Biden administration, not to mention Europe, which is also pushing ahead with a green agenda.

The Chinese government witnessed the brown haze over Beijing and the sooty ash draping Changchun and chose to create a well-publicized and properly funded shift to cleaner technologies, away from carbon. Sure, the Chinese are still building coal-fired plants, but the pace has slowed and massive shift is underway to renewables. The Biden administration has made a similar turn; it is the central pillar of the Biden economic plan. What will we do in Canada?

While a race to EV dominance appears to be one outcome of Joe Biden’s election as U.S. president, global players like Hyundai do not intend to be left behind.

We’ll have some of the answer on April 19 when Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland delivers her first budget, and Canada’s first federal budget in two years. Three days later, Prime Minister Trudeau and Freeland will attend a Biden-hosted virtual climate summit with up to 40 world leaders. Will Canada be an active participant, or simply an interested bystander?

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