Xinjiang’s solar industry may become the next “Xinjiang cotton”: Is there still a need for U.S.-China cooperation in the field of climate change?

The U.S. Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) last week released a supply chain traceability guide designed to help solar companies avoid products suspected of forced labor and other unethical labor practices, a move seen as the U.S. solar industry’s latest response to the forced labor issue in China’s Xinjiang province.

There are signs that the solar industry in Xinjiang may trigger the next “Xinjiang cotton” controversy, facing a ban by the U.S. government and a boycott by companies and consumers around the world.

A report last year by Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Horizon Advisory showed that some major Chinese solar companies were using labor transferred from the Xinjiang region with the help of the government. These companies include GCL-Poly Energy, Dongfang Hope Group, Daxin Energy, Xinte Energy and JinkoSolar, among others.

In the case of GCL-Poly, for example, according to information on its website and reports from China’s Huaxia Energy Network and others, the company acquired SunEdison, the originator of photovoltaic materials in the United States, for $150 million in 2017, signed an agreement with the state of Colorado for the supply of electricity to photovoltaic power plants in 2018, and has photovoltaic power plants built under its name in North Carolina. Both Dah Sing Energy and JinkoSolar are listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

According to an earlier report in The New York Times, AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka urged the Biden administration to ban imports of solar products containing polysilicon from Xinjiang.

In late March, eight Republican members of the U.S. Senate introduced a bill to ban the U.S. federal government from purchasing solar panels made in China.

The ban on solar products from Xinjiang will have some impact on the U.S. solar industry. China dominates the global supply chain for solar energy, especially polysilicon, an important material for manufacturing solar panels.

In 2020, China’s share of global polysilicon production is as high as 82 percent. And 2019 figures show that Xinjiang accounts for 45.3 percent of China’s total polysilicon production capacity.

Suzanne Leta, director of marketing policy and strategy at SunPower, a U.S. solar panel manufacturer, told Voice of America, “Fifty percent of the polysilicon that the global solar industry is going to use comes from Xinjiang, China, along with a lot of related products and components.”

A total ban on solar products from Xinjiang would mean higher costs for the U.S. solar industry, and with it, the massive infrastructure plan recently proposed by President Biden.

Biden said in April that he wants to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent by 2030 and for utilities to achieve 100 percent carbon-free power generation by 2035, in which green energy sources such as solar play an important role.

William A. Reinsch, a trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told Voice of America: “President Biden cares a lot about human rights, and I don’t think his position will change, but the result is that solar products will become more expensive and will slow the spread of solar energy in the U.S., which will then conflict with his pro-renewable energy policies conflict.”

SunPower’s Lita, who is also a board member of the American Solar Energy Industries Association, believes that while a ban on new frontier solar products would mean price and supply chain difficulties, human rights should be the industry’s bottom line.

It’s not about China, it’s about this specific region of China, Xinjiang, where there are serious human rights violations,” she said. No matter where the supply chain comes from, we can’t allow forced labor, that can’t be disputed.”

The American Solar Energy Industries Association has issued traceability guidelines that can help U.S. companies identify the source of materials and maintain ethical pay levels, keeping forced labor out of the supply chain as much as possible.

Reinisch, an expert on trade issues, also added, “The economic side is solvable. If we insist on upholding human rights and keeping Chinese products out of the U.S., we still have other avenues to buy products, and the problem can be solved. But once we give up on human rights, then other countries will give up too. In general, if we insist on upholding human rights, other parties can remedy the situation; if we don’t, we will lose the important position of human rights.”

In mid-April, the U.S. and China issued a joint statement saying they were “committed to working with each other” to address the climate crisis, but the human rights issue in Xinjiang seems to be an unavoidable obstacle to cooperation between the two countries in the clean energy sector

According to Reinsch, direct cooperation between the U.S. and China is unlikely as long as the U.S. is pressuring China on a number of human rights issues, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet. I think they will continue to move in their direction on the climate issue and we will move in our direction, but we are in the same direction as they are,” he said. I’m not sure we can work together, but it will be parallel and the result will still be beneficial to the climate change issue.”

The Chinese government’s Third National Assessment Report on Climate Change, released back in 2015, mentioned that climate change could further exacerbate floods, droughts, sea level rise and atmospheric pollution in China, among other things, threatening the health of the population, jeopardizing agriculture and food security, and limiting development in coastal areas. Climate change is an issue that China must address, whether or not it cooperates with other countries.

John Kerry, the U.S. president’s special envoy on climate issues, has said that China’s pledges to reduce emissions are “not good enough” for the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

China currently plans to achieve its “carbon neutrality” goal by 2060, 10 years later than the 2050 target set by most countries, and it tends to emphasize the need for developed countries to take more responsibility for reducing emissions. China is currently the world’s highest emitter of carbon dioxide, accounting for about 28 percent of global emissions. The United States comes in second, with about 15 percent.