On Thursday, March 20, Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University Dr. Johannes Urpelainen was invited by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies to host an Asan Roundtable on the political history of renewable energy. He discussed the transition of renewable energy from an unlikely energy alternative into a global industry, and the politics that subsequently emerged to make renewables a bifurcated issue. Creating a framework to understand energy policy decisions, Dr. Urpelainen strived to apply this framework into practice and see how it relates to Korea’s current energy scenario.
Up until the 1990s and even early 2000s, there was much pessimism surrounding renewable energy as a viable energy source. At that time, it had just emerged as a topic worth considering, and it was barely ingrained in the social or political vernacular. Initial investments in renewable energy technology were difficult to amass due to the carbon lock-in system, where initial costs to construct fossil-fuel industries helped stake their foothold in the market. However, the oil crises of 1973 and 1978 and the nuclear crises of 1979 and 1986 prompted the government to begin seeking alternative sources of energy. As climate change also became a more pressing issue, renewables emerged as a strong contender.
Beginning in 1990, the renewable energy sector increased at an exponential rate, growing eight times as fast over the span of 15 years, and exceeded all predictions. Its popularization led to its politicization on the national platform, and, especially in places such as the United States, renewable energy policies became a bipartisan issue. Whereas renewable energy had provoked little political opposition before due to its limited stakes, its rise challenged pre-established interest groups and became an object of political divide.
According to Dr. Urpelainen, the success of renewable energy politics depends significantly on domestic conditions. Factors such as the political influence of heavy industry fossil fuel production versus the political influence of environmental groups, the amount of public concern regarding climate change, and partisan shifts in power have a direct outcome on the renewable energy sector. In saying so, Korea’s main energy sources are coal and nuclear power. Its lack of natural resources makes it cost ineffective for the country to invest in renewable energy sources such as hydroelectricity. However, according to Dr. Urpelainen, there is strong government commitment to improving green industries. Events such as the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster have also left a negative stigma on the nuclear power industry, making space for a possible alternative in the future.
Date/Time: Thursday, March 19, 2015 / 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm
Place: Conference Room (2F), The Asan Institute for Policy Studies
Johannes Urpelainen (PhD, University of Michigan, 2009) is Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. His research focuses on international cooperation and environmental politics. The development and testing of strategies to improve the formulation of economic and environmental policy motivates much of his research.
His first book, Cutting the Gordian Knot of Economic Reform, is the result of a collaboration with Leonardo Baccini from the London School of Economics and Political Science. The book was published by Oxford University Press. Drawing on both quantitative tests and extensive case studies, the research shows that leaders in developing countries have used preferential trading agreements with the European Union and the United States to secure domestic political support and enhance the implementation of initially controversial reforms. The results from the book have been featured and used by various research and policy organizations, including the United Nations.
The author of more than a hundred refereed articles, Professor Urpelainen’s research has been widely published in leading social science journals, such as The American Journal of Political Science, International Organization, and The Journal of Politics. He has also published extensively in economics and policy journals.
Much of Professor Urpelainen’s current research focuses on finding practical solutions to the political problems surrounding economic policy reforms in emerging economies. These projects have brought him to a number of countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
In his spare time, Professor Urpelainen loves to read biographies, improve his terrible Hindi, and meditate.