updated 8/28/2007 5:54:49 PM ET 2007-08-28T21:54:49

They could be powerful new weapons in the battle against global warming: turbines powered by waves or wind, or technology that scrubs the skies to recapture and recycle carbon.

The struggle to contain and reverse climate change may hinge on whether governments and corporations choose those kinds of environmentally friendly options in the next two decades, U.N. experts said Tuesday.

“Climate change may turn out to be an environmental question with an economic answer,” said Yvo de Boer, the U.N.’s top climate official.

Worldwide, a projected $20 trillion will be spent on energy infrastructure between now and 2030. More than 1,000 experts meeting in Vienna this week are trying to come up with ways to ensure that as much of that cash as possible goes toward projects that will efficiently generate clean energy.

Governments can help by enacting legislation that gives companies tax breaks, subsidies and other incentives to invest in clean technology, de Boer said.

Another option, he said, could be an international tax on air travel — a levy that would raise an extra $10 billion-$15 billion a year.

But industry will have to take the lead. The private sector accounts for 86 percent of all energy investment, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change says in a new report.

It says additional investments of about $210 billion a year will be needed — mostly in the developing world — to maintain greenhouse gas emissions at their current levels in 2030.

“The investment decisions that are taken today will affect the world’s emissions profile ... for many more years to come,” the report warns.

Negotiators in Vienna are laying the groundwork for a major climate summit to be held in December in Bali, Indonesia.

Officials say a new treaty is needed to eventually replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which requires 35 industrial nations to cut their global-warming emissions 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, when Kyoto expires. They also say private industry needs to see a long-term international agreement in place before it sinks money into “green” energy projects.

Underscoring the lucrative business opportunities that climate change has spawned, the World Bank says the global carbon market — where government and industry limits on carbon dioxide emissions are traded like credits — tripled from $7.9 billion in 2005 to $24.4 billion last year.

Companies need to do some fast thinking, U.N. experts say, because 40 percent of the world’s power generation infrastructure will be replaced in the next five years.

“What they do today, they could be stuck with for the next 25 or 30 years,” de Boer said.

The U.N. is promoting clean alternatives that use new technology to capture and recycle pollutants that damage the Earth’s atmosphere.

One such project, a joint U.S.-Chinese initiative at China’s largest coal methane-fired power plant, captures methane — a volatile gas that, like carbon dioxide, contributes to global warming — and converts it into electricity.

But environmental organizations chided de Boer’s office for shifting the focus from coral reefs to carbon markets.

The Climate Action Network, an umbrella group, issued a statement suggesting the fight against global warming should be motivated by altruism, not avarice.

“The shift away from the business-as-usual path to a clean, efficient and safe energy future is not about additional costs, but about saving money, species and human lives,” it said.

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