Downtown Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, has a golden tribute to the U.S. efforts to end the Balkan wars of the mid 90’s — a statue of Bill Clinton. It’s safe to say nowhere in Eastern Europe is the U.S. as loved as it is in the tiny country of Kosovo. That’s why the current campaign against a U.S.-supported coal plant is all the more awkward. Kosovars who sincerely appreciate all the U.S. has done for them are forced to shine a light on plans for a dirty and deadly new plant whose primary support comes from the U.S. State Department. But now they’re seeking the help of an unusual ally to help move their young country beyond coal — the climate champion Secretary of State John Kerry.
As reported by Valerie Volcovici and Reuters, a consortium of ten Kosovar civil society groups wrote to Secretary Kerry on Wednesday saying:
President Obama’s recent Climate Action Plan, which calls for an end to public financing for new coal plants overseas, has raised our hopes for a cleaner and safer future … We believe the best way to ensure development is through low carbon growth — not new lignite fired power plants … We therefore ask the U.S. state department to lead a new U.S. Government effort to identify clean alternatives to a proposed coal fired power plant in the country that can be supported by the World Bank Group.
KOSID, a consortium of Kosovar NGOs, recently released a public service ad highlighting the public health impacts of coal in Kosovo. The ad specifically seeks to end support for a new coal plant in Kosovo based on health concerns and instead build clean energy. Watch it:
For those who don’t follow the world of international energy lending closely, the U.S. has been financing overseas coal plants with billions of American taxpayer dollars from agencies like the U.S. Export-Import Bank. The Ex-Im Bank makes loans to private companies to facilitate the export of U.S. products and is the subject of a lawsuit brought by a coalition of environmental groups who oppose the bank’s increasing support for domestic and foreign fossil fuel projects.
That’s why it was such an important step for the President to take when he released a plan that had this to say on the financing of coal plants overseas: “The President calls for an end to U.S. government support for public financing of new coal plants overseas, except for (a) the most efficient coal technology available in the world’s poorest countries in cases where no other economically feasible alternative exists, or (b) facilities deploying carbon capture and sequestration technologies.”
But why did the Kosovars write now? Because they paid close attention to President Obama’s recent Climate Action Plan, which effectively closed the U.S. for overseas coal business. The president’s plan was quickly followed by severe restrictions on new coal plant finance from the World Bank. Together these new policies created the perfect opportunity to call for an end to the dirty Kosovo coal project.
The groups in Kosovo are opposed to the 600 MW coal-fired power station in part because 835 people already die every year from air pollution spewed by the country’s two existing coal plants. Further, a new coal plant would dramatically raise electricity rates for average citizens. And to top it all off, the World Bank’s own former chief clean energy czar Dan Kammen has shown that the country can create more jobs at a lower cost by building clean energy instead.
Thus far, Kosovars have seen their attempts at voicing their concerns over the project fall on deaf ears. This led to a guerrilla public relations campaign led by Kosovo’s ‘badass mama’ who launched an ad campaign highlighting the effects of air pollution on the country’s children. From there, they moved to projecting their message directly on the World Bank building during their annual meetings. Kosovo’s grassroots activism has propelled their cause into the limelight where they have effectively become the test case for the World Bank’s recently announced coal ban.
In the eyes of the Kosovar opposition, if the U.S. State Department continues to push the World Bank to support this project, they undermine the President’s new Climate Action Plan. Moreover, they undermine it under the leadership of the agency’s strongest possible climate champion, John Kerry (a man who ironically led the charge in the Senate to secure what eventually became the World Bank’s new coal ban).
Now the stage is set for Secretary Kerry to uphold the World Bank and President Obama’s pledges to end coal finance overseas. Doing so would surely cement a legacy as a champion of climate issues from those watching on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps downtown Prishtina has room for another gold statue to honor the man who ushered in an era of clean energy for Europe’s youngest nation.
Justin Guay is the Associate Director of the International Climate Program at the Sierra Club.