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 Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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