The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Although Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard had promised before to not enact a carbon tax, floods, bush fires, heat waves, and drought reawakened discussion about putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions.

This week, Australia’s House of Representatives narrowly passed a carbon tax, sending the bill to the country’s Senate, where observers say it is almost certain to pass. Supporters say Australia’s setup would have several advantages over Europe’s carbon-trading system, including a fixed price for the first three years while the fledgling system gets going, which could allow Australia to claim it is the world leader on climate legislation.

However, Australia is currently one of the biggest emitters per capita, with 80 percent of the country’s electricity coming from coal. Australia is also the world’s biggest coal exporter, and as such has the coal industry reacting fiercely to the proposed law.

Buying Sunshine

Debt-wracked Greece is launching a plan—with Germany’s help—to attempt to boost its economy out of recession by building huge solar power installations. “Project Helios,” named after the Greek god of the sun, is designed to attract 20 billion euros in foreign investment—and a large portion of the electricity produced may leave the country, headed to Germany.

However, the plan for exporting the electricity has some snags, critics say—including the need for billions of euros of investment in Greece’s power grid. Nonetheless, the president of the Hellenic Association of Photovoltaic Companies said the plan is more realistic than Desertec, a proposal to supply Europe with electricity from huge solar power farms in North Africa.

Energy for All

In preparation for 2012—which the United Nations has named the Year of Sustainable Energy for All—the International Energy Agency released its first assessment of the cost of ending energy poverty. The price tag: $48 billion a year—about 3 percent of the yearly global energy investment, and about five times as much as is spent now trying to bring energy to the world’s poor.

Expanding electricity to about 1.5 billion people who lack it now would add less than 1 percent to the world’s emissions, the report estimated, and the spread could be driven by the private sector, with the proper incentives from governments, said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Pipeline Proceedings

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry diluted tar sands from Canada to Texas, faced raucous opposition at a public hearing in Washington, D.C. Protests against the project outside the White House dwindled in September, but the project remains a political headache for the Obama Administration.

Nonetheless, many industry insiders surveyed by National Journal, as well as Canada’s natural resources minister, said the administration is likely to approve the pipeline.

More Nuclear Zones

Notwithstanding the retreat from nuclear power in Germany, Switzerland, and perhaps Japan, the world is still headed for a nuclear renaissance, said a report by Britain’s Royal Society. However, the report argued there should be more emphasis on controlling proliferation of nuclear materials and better storage of spent fuel to avoid accidents like that at Fukushima.

A new bill in Berkeley, California, is questioning the city’s long-time stance as a “nuclear free zone,” which uses no nuclear power and lets no nuclear weapons pass through it. But one of  its city council members says the 1986 law causes more problems than it is worth and should be repealed.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which could carry a diluted form of tar sands from Canada to Texas, has attracted the ire of many environmentalists, including Bill McKibben, who spearheaded protests in front of the White House last month.

This week, McKibben argued the Obama administration is practicing “crony capitalism” and that e-mails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request imply the State Department—charged with evaluating the pipeline—may have worked closely with TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, to help the plan win approval.

The State Department rejected the accusations of bias. In response, the heads of a more than a dozen major environmental groups and other nonprofits called for President Obama to strip the State Department of its authority over the pipeline. Environmental groups also sued to stop the pipeline, saying TransCanada had unlawfully begun preparations in Nebraska for the pipeline, although it is still awaiting approval.

The opposition went more mainstream when a New York Times editorial called for the United States to “Say No to the Keystone XL,” arguing it would not do much to help energy security because much of the oil appears slated for export, and the best bet for long-term job creation is through renewable and alternative energy, rather than building more pipelines.

The European Union appears likely to stymie imports of fuels made from tar sands, through a new fuel quality directive.

Haunting Visit

The Obama administration also came under fire because the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) had hired top campaign supporters to help direct loan guarantees and other support for cleantech companies, including $535 million for now-bankrupt solar panel manufacturer Solyndra.

Obama was warned before his May 2010 visit to Solyndra, the trip may come back to haunt him because the company was already looking shaky, according to newly released e-mails.

Before a major loan guarantee program ended, the DOE completed $4.75 billion in loan guarantees for four large solar projects, on top of $11.4 billion in loans backed by the program before.

Solar Decline

It’s not just solar companies such as Solyndra that have struggled. Sales of solar panels may drop in 2012, according to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst and two large solar companies. This runs counter to 15 years of double-digit growth rates, and would be the first time, at least since 1975, that annual installations have fallen.

The U.S. solar industry is headed for a “solar coaster” as key federal subsidies are set to expire.

In Germany, consumers are rushing to install more panels in anticipation of a scheduled drop in the country’s solar subsidies. Chancellor Angela Merkel also said the government may cut the subsidies further.

With a surplus of panels on the market and prices falling, Germany’s plan to shut its nuclear plants may cost the country less than expected, taking away some of the bite of this transition.

Subsidy Backfire

In 2010, the world spent $409 billion subsidizing fossil fuels, up 36 percent from the year before, since policies remained largely unchanged while fossil fuels prices rose, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

In industrialized countries, subsidies tend to go to fuel producers, while in developing countries the price to consumers is subsidized as a way to help the poor. However, the vast majority of fossil fuel subsidies go to middle and upper classes, the report found. It also argued the subsidies encourage waste and make prices more volatile, thus backfiring by creating hardship for the poor.

The countries with the biggest subsidies are major oil and gas producers that rely heavily on oil revenue—mostly members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), plus Russia. In 2010, about half the subsidies went toward oil, a quarter toward natural gas, and the remaining quarter toward coal. “The time of cheap energy is over,” said the Executive Director of the IEA, Maria van der Hoeven.

Fighting Denial

Many of the leading Republican candidates for the presidency have, while on the campaign trail, questioned whether climate change is real, or whether people are causing it.

Some Republicans who supported policies to cut emissions in the past have been quiet about this issue recently. But National Journal reports that, behind the scenes, former Republican officials and other insiders are trying to shift the GOP’s focus back to acknowledging climate change is real.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.