By Beth Daley, The Boston Globe

The worldwide economic crisis is prompting a growing number of countries to back away from pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions and invest in clean energy, just a week before the start of talks in Poland on a new worldwide climate change treaty.

In the United States, some business groups are calling on President-elect Barack Obama to move cautiously in tackling global warming, saying that a too aggressive response could prolong the economic downturn and cost jobs.

But a growing chorus of other businesses, environmentalists, and politicians are calling for a green-based economic recovery.

An enormous federal government investment in clean technology would provide low-cost capital to accelerate energy efficiency, build massive renewable energy projects, and jumpstart a sustainable low-carbon economy, these groups say. Such a Green New Deal, woven into the economic stimulus package being crafted for early next year, could create millions of government-subsidized jobs and build a new energy infrastructure.

"It's a smart thing to do for the economy and a strategically wonderful thing to do for the environment,'' said David Foster, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance, a partnership between the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers that works to develop green jobs. His group points to a University of Massachusetts report earlier this fall that said a $100 billion investment in clean technology could create 2 million new jobs in the next two years.

"It leads us down the path for energy independence,'' he said. "It's a historic opportunity."

On Saturday, Obama gave his strongest comments yet about making the environment a cornerstone of his economic stimulus plan. He outlined a package to create 2.5 million jobs, that included "building wind farms and solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil..."

During the campaign, Obama pledged to cap carbon dioxide emissions and reduce them 80 percent by 2050 and to have 25 percent of US energy come from renewable sources by 2025. He wants to invest $150 billion in clean energy in the next decade. In addition, he has said he will raise vehicle fuel economy standards and aggressively pursue energy efficiency and conservation.

Supporters, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council, say such a plan could include federal financial incentives to quickly build large-scale solar, wind, and other renewable projects. It could also include massive investment in new transmission lines to bring renewable power from rural areas into cities, creating a new electricity grid.

And they say a cap on carbon dioxide emissions would force power plants and other industries to pay to pollute - which would lower emissions and bring in needed revenue during the economic recovery.

They point to several studies that suggest that investment in efficient and renewable energy could create a lot more jobs than the same size investment in the already established oil and gas industry.

Yet even the most ardent environmentalists acknowledge it won't be easy to do now. Any meaningful reductions in carbon dioxide from power plants are likely to raise electricity prices, says Robert N. Stavins, who directs the Harvard Project on International Climate Agreements. Even if the costs are marginal, the public and political leaders are unlikely to buy into such a plan during an economic crisis because it will be viewed as hurting industry at a vulnerable time, he says.

At the same time, he says, the economic crisis could "distract attention" from the environment, and "for that reason alone it would not be surprising if there is less rapid and less intense [response] to global climate change than the predictions being made six months ago."

Some business leaders say that while renewable energy is a laudable goal, no technology exists that could replace the reliability of fossil fuels. If too much federal money is given to subsidize alternative energy or force a stringent cap on heat-trapping emissions, they say the ensuing energy price spike would severely undercut an economic recovery.

"We can't afford that kind of cost today," said William Kovacs, vice president for the Environment, Technology & Regulatory Affairs Division at the US Chamber of Commerce. "We need to drill [for oil and gas] immediately on the outer continental shelf and then take those [royalties] and invest them in alternative technologies."

Public commitment to energy matters has been shown to respond to economic factors. When oil prices topped $130 a barrel, and gas prices soared, Americans drove less for the first time in nearly two decades. But fuel prices are now dropping as demand falls, and people are already driving more often.

The oil price decline and the economic crisis could also cause venture capital investment in renewable power and green technology to falter.

"Yet in many ways, this is an ideal time" for government investment, said Robert Kaufmann, director of the center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University. He says the economic crisis will translate into a slowdown of carbon dioxide emissions from factories and power plants. If an emissions cap is imposed now, "there is more wiggle room under it" for industry, he said. This means businesses would probably pay little to pollute in the short-term, until a recovery takes hold.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.

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