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.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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