Bill McKibben calls it Kosovo’s Keystone. Not only is the U.S. State Department pushing dirty energy on its own country, it’s pushing it on Kosovo as well. It’s just not as clear why.
The State Department is currently leaning on the World Bank to fund a new coal-fired power plant in Kosovo, part of a plan that includes shutting down an old, Soviet-era coal plant, refurbishing another and privatizing distribution of electricity. Just last week, an expert panel at the Bank decided that the project met environmental requirements and cleared the project to move into final approval stages.
What’s ironic is that this project defies policies that the U.S. issued in the wake of Copenhagen, which called on the World Bank to phase out coal lending in light of climate change considerations, and urged lenders to establish “ambitious targets to substantially increase lending for no and low carbon energy services.”
The Bank has been much maligned for boasting a leading role in climate finance while continuing to back dirty energy projects. It was burned a couple years ago by backlash over funding for a huge new coal plant in South Africa. The U.S. abstained from a vote on that project in protest. Though the Kosovo project is scaled back from its initial outsize proportions, the Bank is still so wary of repeat negative PR that it demanded written approval from the U.S.
In October, the Sierra Club issued a report slamming the project for failing to adequately demonstrate real need for new coal-fired generation, failing to consider cleaner solutions and low-balling the cost. The World Bank then drafted a new plan that takes into consideration some alternative energy sources, efficiency measures and revised cost estimates, but stuck to its stance that Kosovo still needs a new coal plant.
The most impoverished countries are exempt from U.S. and World Bank coal-lending restrictions. Kosovo, one of the poorest in Europe, is one of these. If Kosovo truly needed this plant to develop, there is a legitimate argument to be made that it should be permitted. Third world countries contend that industrialized nations shouldn’t crimp development because they dirtied the planet. But in this case, greener alternatives are available.
A new evaluation conducted by the World Bank’s own former chief specialist for renewable energy determined that adding new coal-fired power is not the most economical option for Kosovo because when social and ecological costs are taken into account, coal is up to three times more expensive. The report models a low-carbon path for the country’s extra energy need that includes hydro-power, solar, biomass and wind, and makes a new coal plant unnecessary. This scenario would also create more jobs.
A recent report by the former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's air quality division charges that the World Bank’s new plan still fails to demonstrate the need for new coal energy, stating that renovation and improved efficiency would cost Kosovo less than new construction. And a new plant with excess capacity would actually discourage efficiency. “It will create perverse incentives to increase the use of electricity to justify the initial investment,” according to the report.
The World Bank claims that the project will be carbon-neutral or carbon-reducing.
A plan that requires zero new coal-fired electricity would be cleaner.
So why is the U.S. still pushing coal on Kosovo? The Treasury Department, which is charged with representing the U.S. position on the project, declined to comment specifically on the Kosovo case, instead providing a copy of their general environmental guidelines for coal lending by development banks.
Combinations of several possible motivations for U.S. support of the project have been floating in non-governmental organization and policy circles. Justin Guay, the Sierra Club’s Washington representative says part of the reason stems from the fact that the project was initiated years ago, and its essence remains unchanged. “There is a lot of momentum behind this that is very old,” he says.
A stubborn mentality that is out of step with the reality of climate change also pervades State, says Guay. “There’s this idea that all [Kosovo’s] natural resources should be exploited to help the country develop.” Even if they happen to be dirty. Kosovo sits on the world’s fifth largest deposit of lignite coal. It’s “old-school thinking of energy in general,” says Mijin Cha, senior policy analyst with the Sustainable Progress Initiative at Demos.
The U.S. could be trying to curry favor with the European Union, Cha speculates. The EU claims the project is key in putting Kosovo on the path to EU membership by shutting down its highest-polluting plant. (Environmentalists beg to differ, arguing that funding for lignite coal plants represents an obstacle to meeting the EU’s ambitious emissions reductions targets and follows a pattern of creating high-carbon markets outside the EU community to avoid its steep carbon tax.)
Guay is dubious as to how much of the project is designed for the people of Kosovo and how much for international players. Four international consortiums, including two that are part-American, have been pre-approved for bidding on construction and operation of the plant. Electricity distribution is slated to be privatized as well. “It’s questionable whether it’s even for Kosovo,” Guay says. “Revenues won’t go to the country. They will get incredible debt in a foreign currency in the middle of the EU debt crisis.”
The potential for American companies to construct, own and operate the proposed new plant might be a factor in the U.S.’s drive to push this project, Cha says, “but it’s still only a 50 percent chance that an American company would have part of the tender.” She speculates the extra coal plant might “make [Kosovo] more attractive for foreign investment which would eventually make it more attractive for American companies,” but says that’s a long way off.
An “expert panel” was commissioned last year by the World Bank to determine whether the project complied with U.S. requirements for Bank coal lending, including full consideration of viable alternatives and environmental implications. Last week, the panel announced their decision, claiming the project met these criteria and permitting it to move forward. The next step is an environmental impact assessment before the project is submitted for final approval towards the end of this year.
In the meantime, Kosovars are fighting to halt the environmentally destructive project. Nezir Sinani, with the Kosovar Institute for Development Policy says, “We’ve joined community movements here that are protesting the project. We will use all legal means possible, and try to raise public awareness.”
As the approval, bidding and construction process unfolds, it remains to be seen what’s in the cocktail of motivations behind State’s passion for this project. “It is a bit confusing,” Cha says, “and really disappointing. There is definitely something fishy, it’s just not so clear what it is.”
Erika Eichelberger works for The Nation Institute and is a freelance journalist. Follow Erika on Twitter at @erika_eee.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.