LONDON, Oct 30 - A growing "carbon army" of environmentalists, bankers, and investors has seized on official backing for major public spending announced in Britain and the United States.
They see it not just as a way to boost flagging economies, but also as an opportunity to promote investment in green energy projects.
In times of downturn, spending on infrastructure can prime demand, provide work, and avert depression -- a lesson learned from U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
Green projects that would be candidates include wind and solar farms, efficiency programs to curb demand for carbon-emitting fossil fuels, and "scrubbers" to absorb carbon dioxide from the smokestacks of coal-burning plants.
"You're going to have a classic green stimulus, and when you talk about infrastructure it's about renewables, it's the power grid, the water sector, buildings, energy efficiency and public transport," says Mark Fulton, global head of climate change investment research at Deutsche Bank.
As governments in October pledged $3.3 trillion to bail out banks, green-energy advocates note that measures that dent the world's energy demands and cut carbon emissions could cost less -- and come at a time of dwindling resources and rising populations.
The narrow timeframe to create jobs and spur the economy, however, does not match the long lag time to develop large-scale renewable energy projects, where colossal investment is required. These would include technologies such as offshore wind, tidal power, and carbon scrubbers, all of which are still being tested or require planning consent.
Energy efficiency projects -- for example, to insulate homes -- may fit the bill ["Got Green? They're working on it," Nov. 5-10].
A program to halve global energy demand growth by 2020 would cost $170 billion per year and knock $900 billion off annual fuel bills by then, says the research firm McKinsey Global Institute.
"There could be thousands of jobs in the UK generated over the next 12-24 months by simply reducing the carbon footprint of buildings," says Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.
"It doesn't take billions of dollars."
Steiner was in London for the launch in late October of the UNEP "Green New Deal," meant to stimulate the use of economic tools to promote investment in the environment, such as carbon pricing under Europe's emissions trading scheme launched in 2005.
Days after the stimulus plan was announced, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown advocated an increase in borrowing to shore up the economy, backing efficiency spending. U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and President-elect Barack Obama support a second fiscal stimulus plan to add to the bank bailout.
Supporters of low-carbon energy projects say they are the ideal way to avert catastrophic climate change and encourage alternatives to imports of oil -- costing the United States more than $200 billion a year -- from unstable suppliers. About 60 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions stem from energy production, according to the International Energy Agency which advises 28 countries on energy policy.
A brief conflict in August between Russia and its energy-transit neighbor, Georgia, highlighted Europe's dependence on Russian gas.
"In the European context it makes a lot of sense to have a pan-European super grid which connects different regions with different technologies: wind, hydro, solar," says Henner Gladen, co-founder of German firm Solar Millennium.
The timing is good, they say. The developed world is replacing aging energy infrastructure, while emerging economies are making energy choices now that will last another half-century.
However, far from backing a green wave of investment, some politicians want to reconsider support for climate targets that will add to fuel bills, harming industry and alienating voters.
Italy has said it has the support of 10 European Union member states to delay approval of ambitious climate measures.
When tens of billions of dollars are available, there is no shortage of needy projects. In Britain that may mean schools and hospitals. In the United States, where an economic recovery package is expected to take shape during Congress' lame-duck session, it could be roads, bridges, and health care.
Some economists dispute whether spending during bad times is a good idea, arguing that a lag effect means it contributes to inflation and adds to the tax burden just as a country is emerging from a recession under its own steam.
In addition, an efficiency drive also implies a society less obsessed with consumption, perhaps the last remedy to revive a flagging economy.