We are not helping developing countries if we direct them toward the energy sources of the past.
The tragic accident a few weeks ago at Europe's dirtiest coal plant, the Kosovo A lignite-burning power plant, killed three people and injured at least a dozen. The explosion was heard more than six miles away in the capital city, Pristina.
Coming less than a month after the fatal explosion at the Soma Kömür İş;letmeleri coal mine in western Turkey that killed more than 300, this latest coal disaster underscores the urgency of moving international public finance beyond coal.
And yet the Kosovar government, with the active support of the United States, wants the World Bank to help it build a new coal plant - a request at odds with World Bank president Jim Yong Kim's pledge to end coal finance.
Just to make it worse, the new 600MW 'Kosovo C' power plant would burn lignite, also known as 'brown coal' - one of the most polluting and inefficient fuels on the planet.
Just as the world turns against coal ...
It's ironic that US support for this proposal comes at a time when the Environmental Protection Agency's announcement of its first-ever carbon emission standards for existing power plants has gathered significant international support, most notably from leading carbon polluter China.
Shouldn't the Obama administration's international policy on coal plants align with its domestic policy?
In principle, it does. The president's Climate Action Plan pledges to end US support for overseas coal plants, with only very specific exceptions.
With the help of former chief EPA enforcement officer Bruce Buckheit, the Sierra Club analyzed the proposed new Kosovo coal plant proposal and found that it fails to meet any of the criteria for exception. Our conclusion: The United States should not support this project.
The same conclusion was reached by The Kosovo Civil Society Consortium for Sustainable Development (KOSID), which includes 11 local organizations and is contesting the new coal plant's construction.
Destroying public health in Kosovo
The citizens of Kosovo have good reason to be concerned about a continued reliance on coal. According to a World Bank report released in September 2012, air pollution from burning lignite coal in Kosovo is having a devastating impact on the Kosovo residents:
- 835 early deaths;
- 310 new cases of chronic bronchitis;
- 22,900 new cases of respiratory diseases among children (most often asthma);
- 11,600 emergency visits to country's hospitals;
- direct costs of €100 million, all paid from the pockets of already impoverished Kosovo citizens.
When choosing between energy options, a nation's best and safest interests should come first. Cleaner, cheaper energy alternatives would benefit Kosovo's economy while eliminating a source of major health problems.
In fact, the World Bank's own former chief technical specialist for renewable energy and energy efficiency, Dan Kammen, has carried out a telling analysis of Kosovo's energy problems.
It shows that if Kosovo shifted its focus to wind and other clean energy solutions, cut the massive losses in electricity transmission, and insulated homes, not only would the reduction in coal pollution save lives and reduce medical bills but there would also be a 30% increase in job creation and a capital cost savings of 50% over building a new coal plant.
The world's future is at stake
We're at a critical juncture in our climate future. The world is already seeing the unprecedented effects of climate disruption, from sea level rise to extreme temperatures to stronger, deadlier storms like Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan. If we continue on our current path, the world as we know it will be changed forever.
President Obama knows what's at stake. He told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times last month, "There is no doubt that if we burned all the fossil fuel that's in the ground right now that the planet's going to get too hot and the consequences could be dire. We're not going to be able to burn it all."
For Kosovo to commit to decades more of burning coal when there are cleaner alternatives available makes no sense, either environmentally or economically. We are not helping developing countries if we direct them toward the energy sources of the past.
No. Non. Nein ...
The Kosovar and US governments must move beyond the idea that outdated, dirty coal can be a solution to our global energy needs. If we are serious about addressing climate disruption then, as President Obama acknowledged, we must leave as many dirty fuels as possible in the ground.
By turning to clean energy to power our lives both on and off the grid globally, we can make real strides in protecting our planet for generations to come, while also protecting public health and creating jobs.
In the span of less than a month, the international community witnessed two significant industrial accidents caused by an archaic and dangerous source of energy.
As the largest shareholder in the World Bank, it is time for the United States to withdraw its support for the Kosovo coal project.
Only by helping Kosovo diversify to clean, safe sources of energy, can we help safeguard the health and future of Europe's newest nation.
Petition: World Bank - no more coal for Kosovo!
Michael Brune is Executive Director of the Sierra Club.