Majority of businesses committed to lead the way toward a low carbon economy: Columbia professor Johannes Urpelainen

Ilario D'Amato
Reading time: 7 minutes
16 January 2015

NEW YORK: Johannes Urpelainen is Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. His research focuses on environmental policy, energy poverty, and international cooperation and institutions. We asked him some insight into his academic and policy research, and how sub-national governments and business can shape the global shift towards a low carbon economy.

Some sub-national governments are implementing bold policies to tackle climate change, as the ones that are part of The Climate Group States & Regions program. What can they effectively achieve in this field?

They are fundamental in terms of policy and global economic stimulus. Let’s take an example. The wind turbine in Tvind, Denmark, can be seen as the first case of effective sub-regional policy. And this is still very effective: we can sum up this experience as ‘dream big, win small’: it created the foundation for a global cooperation, and today is more effective than many years ago.

However, sub-national governments have not the power to change everything: after all, global problems require global solutions. This is where the ‘small’ sub-national governments can win, with their technological and especially political transformational potential. They can show their nations how to do well, so that their own national governments can implement their winning policies and get over the skepticism.

Aside from the Tvind experience, what are other good examples of an effective climate policy?

The German Energiewende is surely a clear example of what governments can achieve – and particularly on what they can do on a large scale, as opposed to the small Danish experience.

The “Texas wind rush” is another very interesting example. In the latest years, we have seen this very conservative state – which owns vast fossil reserves and is also a large emitter of CO2 – building more and more wind turbines all around its territory. This is a clear example of how renewable energy is a cross-topic that goes beyond the usual political dichotomies.

Two others good national examples are Bangladesh and Kenya, which combined great attention to micro-finance with pushing new, clean technology. However, some of these bold results are still largely unknown to the public: not many people know that Kenya has a long and successful history of gathering solar power energy, while for the technology side most of its population uses the cellphones to pay everyday transactions.

Of course, all these experiences must be put in the right context. For example, we can’t just simply replicate the German experience in smaller countries with a complete different socio-economical background, or such policies will certainly fail.

Sub-national and national governments can set the right background for progressing toward a low carbon economy. And what can business do?

Business solutions are all around us, and we experience them day by day. Moreover, business have the great advantage of being above national states, sometimes even transnational: as an example, Denmark businesses produce the wind turbines needed for the great wind expansion happening in California.

However, businesses have their own issues to resolve, particularly on the technological field. The cost of power storage is one of the major challenges for them: it is still quite high, but the good news is that clean technology is rapidly progressing. Therefore, this price is starting to going down - also thanks to forward thinking projects like the planned Tesla Gigafactory.

Businesses are committed to lead the way of the technological transformation towards a low carbon economy: one of the main examples is the OMC Power, which operates 20 micro power plants in villages in Uttar Pradesh. But business is changing far beyond just a mere technological shift: it is experiencing a cultural change, as demonstrated by the growing number of companies that support a price on carbon.

Every day we read very serious - and sometimes alarming - reports about the state of the Earth. Is it too late to do something?

Not at all. There are many rays of hope - from the above-mentioned technological progress, to decades of effective policy interaction between governments and business. Also, personally I see a growing sense of unity among the climate fight. There is much less conflict between the different actors in the climate debate, and this brings more clarity on the goals and effectiveness on deliver them.

From a scientific point of view, we have now enough case studies for assess the sub-national leadership in climate policy. What we need to do now is to focus on the metrics for the transformation potential and the data collection, two fundamental variables to have a clear framework and consequently decide where and how to intervene.

Some national governments like Australia believe that tackling climate change will hurt their economy and the creation of new jobs. What’s your opinion on such statement?

We have many different national governments, each one with its own peculiar history and ideology. As I stated above, where a policy is a good model for one state it can easily not be good for another one. However, when we talk about economy and loss of jobs we enter a difficult and variable territory: it’s easy to see the jobs a government creates with fossil fuel-based industries, but they don’t take in account the jobs lost because of other related issues. Without a shift towards a low carbon economy, the price of electricity will inevitably rise – causing the closure of industries and business, and therefore losing jobs.

The only answer to this is find local support to raise awareness towards these issues and new economic mechanisms, so to create policies that can even protect industries from the volatility of the electrical prices. To summarize, my point is that policies don’t have to be necessarily expensive, but on the contrary they help economy and governments in the long run.

As for a correct information on the climate issue, do you think are journalists and commentators more effective than before? What’s your experience with the public awareness?

I started my pathway into climate issues some ten years ago, and at the time climate activists and businesses were complete antagonists. Today, as I mentioned, I see a sense of unity between them. We see that companies that are opposed to the shift towards a low carbon economy are a minority, and climate change is not anymore a topic that belongs just to activists but also to businesses.

For example, we were talking for years of things like distributed energy on the rooftops. Today we can see all this actually happening, right now in front of our eyes. And that’s extremely exciting.

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by Ilario D'Amato

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