South Korea imports 97% of its energy and is the world's tenth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It has increased its target for supplying renewable energy from 2.4% in 2008 to 6.1% by 2020. This seems overly ambitious, given that its renewable energy has increased by only 0.37% in the past decade. Even that aim is modest compared with the European Union's goal to source 20% of its energy from renewables by 2020.

South Korea is attempting to transform from quantitative to low-carbon qualitative growth (Nature 464, 832–833; 2010). This green-growth strategy encourages policies that tackle climate change and enhance security, and aims to create new markets by investing 2% of gross domestic product in renewable-energy sources over the next five years.

These measures are unrealistic, however, given the state of the South Korean new- and renewable-energy industry. Even with an export boom, the country's lack of original technology and facilities could result in profits going overseas. The problem lies with South Korea's high dependence on imports of core components for export goods, combined with its sluggish rate of change to domestic production.

Scientists must agree on which new- and renewable-energy technologies are suitable for adoption. They need to take into account economic factors, convenience, safety and reliability, and to convince industry and consumers to recognize the advantages.