Green energy is not a middle-class conceit, more the only way forward

A Green New Deal is essential if we are to enjoy a sustainable prosperity, argues Geoffrey Lean

So that's it, then, choruses the commentariat. Collapsing confidence, crashing stock markets and credit-starved banks spell doom not just for the economy, but for environmental concerns. Saving the planet may be all very well in the good times, but is an unaffordable luxury when things turn bad.

The argument is pervasive, persuasive and gaining ground. Even some environmentalists half-accept it, believing they should mute their message. But it is plain wrong. Never have green concerns and measures been more important.

How so? The second best reason is that this financial crisis is mild compared with the environmentally driven ones ahead. The climate crunch, the Stern report concluded, will cost a staggering 20 per cent of global growth if not averted. Peak oil – when the cheap and abundant fuel that has powered our growth becomes scarce and expensive – is likely to be even worse in its impact, reducing supplies of humanity's main source of energy, for the first time in history, before another can take its place.

And neither can wait. There's a growing consensus that emissions of carbon dioxide must head sharply downwards within a decade if global warming is not to run out of control. And peak oil, a growing number of experts believe, may well arrive even sooner.

But the most important reason is wholly positive. Developing a new green economy is our most promising path out of the present crisis. It is the best available new engine of growth, with the best chance of creating the tens of millions of jobs that will soon be desperately needed.

This Wednesday, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) will be making precisely this point, when it launches a new campaign in London. Its multi-million-dollar Green Economy Initiative – already being funded by the German and Norwegian governments and the European Commission – aims to convince the world, that, far from restricting growth, tackling the growing planetary environmental crisis would accelerate it.

UNEP plans to "make and communicate a strong and convincing economic case". As The Independent on Sunday exclusively reported last week, it envisages a Green New Deal to create jobs, revive the international economy, slash poverty and head off environmental disaster.

The launch comes not a moment too soon, for the tide is already flowing strongly in the other direction. Last Thursday it threatened to sweep away the prospects for agreeing a strong successor to the Kyoto Protocol – the best, and last, chance to bring climate change under control.

Eight European leaders – led by Donald Tusk the Prime Minister of Poland, and Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's controversial premier – revolted against ambitious targets for increasing renewable energy adopted at a similar summit just 18 months ago, saying they could no longer afford to meet them. The revolt is serious because it threatens to undermine the authority of the EU, which is leading the drive towards a new climate treaty, and to give other countries the excuse not to act.

It is also shortsighted, for renewables are one of the most important, and fastest growing, parts of the already booming green economy. Worldwide, investment in them grew four-fold, from $33.4bn (£19.3bn) to $148.4bn between 2004 and 2007, Michael Liebreich, CEO of analysts New Energy Finance, will report in the next issue of the UN's environmental magazine, Our Planet.

Renewables' share of Germany's electricity supply has almost tripled to more than 14 per cent over the past 10 years, creating 250,000 jobs. In China 600,000 people are employed in making and installing solar water heaters: they are now used in one in 10 of the nation's homes – a proportion forecast to rise to one in two by 2030. Chinese wind-energy capacity has doubled in each of the past two years, while its production of solar cells soared from virtually nothing in 2005 to the biggest in the world last year. Worldwide, renewables now employ 2.3 million people, a figure expected almost to quadruple by 2030.

The global market for environmental goods and services now stands at $1.37 trillion and this is expected to double within 12 years. Clean technologies attract the third largest amount of venture capital in the US after IT and biotechnology. And a recent UNEP report concludes that the green economy is driving invention and innovation – long acknowledged to be the principal drivers of economic growth – on a scale not seen since the industrial revolution.

If all this has been happening under the old, now failing, economic regime, which has not been at all favourable to green growth, what might happen if the world decided to promote the new green economy? For a start there would be many more jobs. Renewable energy, says Professor Daniel Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley, "has been shown to generate three to five times more jobs per dollar, or yuan, invested, than comparable investments in fossil fuels". Similarly, recycling creates 10 times as much employment as dumping rubbish in landfills, while the International Labour Organisation reports that worldwide move to energy-efficient buildings could create "tens of millions of new jobs".

But the initiative to be launched in London next week goes further, envisaging a massive programme of work – like the huge infrastructure programme at the heart of Roosevelt's original New Deal – to restore the vital natural services that underpin the world economy. UNEP points out that policies that have concentrated on their short-term exploitation, without considering how they should be used to sustain long-term prosperity, have led to the climate and energy crises – and to the rising food prices that have already plunged an extra million of the world's poorest people into severe hunger. World growth has doubled over the past 25 years, but 60 per cent of the natural resources that provide food, water, energy and clean air have been seriously degraded.

"The 20th century economy, now in such crisis, was driven by financial capital," says Achim Steiner, UNEP's executive director. "The 21st-century one is going to have to be based on developing the world's natural capital to provide the lasting jobs and wealth that are needed, particularly for the poorest people on the planet." He cites Mexico, which is already employing 1.5 million poor people to plant and manage the forests that conserve the country's soil and water supplies.

It makes economic, as well as environmental sense. If the world's two billion desperately poor people can be economically enfranchised, they will become a huge new market, helping to create a new world prosperity.

Utopian nonsense, some economist will retort. But these are the very people who told us we should put our faith in a banking system balancing on a basis of toxic debt, that the grotesque greed of the few would cause wealth to trickle down to the poor, and that tackling poverty or environmental crisis would ruin the world's financial system. Who, then, has been living in a fantasy world?

Could the Green New Deal ever take off? It is certainly a million miles from the economic fashion of the past 30 years, but that is now as bankrupt as Lehman Brothers. When one philosophy fails, the world grasps at an available alternative, as it did at monetarism three decades ago when Keynsianism was thought to have run out of steam. And this is the best candidate around.

It also has a surprising amount of, at least verbal, support from business and political leaders. In June the chief executives of 100 of the world's biggest companies called on the world's governments to launch "a green industrial revolution" by adopting tough measures on climate change. At about the same time, David Cameron said that going green was essential for future prosperity. Its time for their money to follow their mouths.