Major moves toward clean energy are taking place in other developed countries as governments find ways to navigate between today's recession and worries of future global warming. In Australia, lawmakers have just passed plans to generate 20 percent of all electricity from renewable sources by 2020, while Germany aims to have a million electric cars by the same date.
Australia has been grappling with the opposing demands of environmentalists and its own powerful coal industry for over a year, and reacted much as the United States has, with compromises aimed at industry. Cap and trade, although passed, has already been delayed until 2011 and only holds a weak target of reducing emissions to 5 percent below 2000 levels by 2020.
Mandating renewable energy instead of hard caps on emissions is becoming increasingly popular, and for good reason. Politicians get to sell renewables as an engine of job creation, while all other businesses responsible for high emissions -- in Australia, for instance, aluminum is a big industry -- get a pass.
The goal of replacing the country's existing coal-powered plants might not even conflict with Australia's massive domestic coal industry. China has been on a binge of snapping up the resource; most recently, Yanzhou Coal Mining agreed to pay $2.9 billion for Australia's Felix Resources. The coal will thus quietly exit the country, leaving no mark on its emissions profile.
In Germany, the government passed an "electro-mobility plan" intended to kick-start electric cars, with an eye to eventually replacing most consumer transportation with them -- a million by 2020 could quintuple by 2030, and expand rapidly thereafter.
But the big challenge, figuring out exactly how to motivate consumers, is one that the country hasn't grappled with yet. It has set aside money for research, but has yet to define any incentives. Doing so will be a tricky business; initial runs of electric cars will be far more expensive than regular automobiles, so a mix of driving privileges, tax rebates and loans might be required.
But in both countries, the major beneficiaries will be the companies who fulfill the new mandates. Europe has few companies capable of making electric cars, beyond BMW through its Mini subsidiary and startups like Think, but making components like batteries could become a big industry.
Australia, for its part, should prove fertile to solar and geothermal companies. With about 50 gigawatts of generating capacity and very little in the way of renewable energy, Australia will need to subsidize heavily to reach its 10GW goal.