Can the US afford to go green?

With the Dow still in the doldrums, what hope is there for a green revolution? The New York Times reported this week that shares in renewable energy companies have been plummeting, hit by the double whammy of a credit crunch and falling oil prices. As Bradford Plumer points out, it’s starting to look like the 1980s all over again, when falling energy prices shunted America’s fledgling renewable-energy companies firmly onto the back burner.

And inevitably, the economic downturn is also making it harder for politicians to push for emission cuts. Canada’s Liberal party just got trounced in the country’s general election, in large part because they were pushing for a carbon tax program; the relatively minor tax increase would have been offset by income tax reductions, and wouldn’t have affected the price of gasoline, but Liberals weren’t able to convince voters that they could reduce emissions without driving the economy into a ditch.

That doesn’t bode well for US efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions. Both presidential candidates say they’re determined to implement a cap-and-trade system; in practice, though, any such plan is likely to run into problems. The moment a formal plan is presented to Congress, conservatives will start crunching numbers and claiming that cutting emissions will lead to economic carnage. With the economy in the state it’s in, they’ll likely find a receptive audience.

The irony in all this is that going green could be the best way for America to dig her way out of her current mess. Look at California: according to a new study by researchers at Berkeley, the Golden State’s green-energy and efficiency initiatives have created some 1.5 million new jobs in the past three decades, and led to the elimination of less than 25,000 jobs in the conventional energy sector.

That’s had the knock-on effect of boosting the state’s payroll by at least $45 billion, the researchers estimate, and allowed consumers to spend more of their hard-earned cash in the service and retail sectors rather than on utility costs. On a national scale, that could be exactly the spark that’s needed to jolt America out of a recession. The real question is, can we afford not to go green?

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