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Kosovo is a Chance for World Bank, Obama to Show Global Leadership on Climate Change

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Smoke billows from the power plant at Obilić in central Kosovo. Photo by Jon Worth/Flickr, Creative Commons.

Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s now famous comment, “Never let a serious crisis to go to waste,” could not have been more true of Hurricane Sandy, which was a harbinger of the costly destructive power of climate change.  Sandy made clear that willful ignorance of climate science and inaction is simply not a sane option.

We need action, and that takes leadership.  Thankfully over the past year we have seen significant–hopefully world-changing–leadership emerge in both the largest development agency and in the wealthiest nation.

First, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim commissioned a report last year that found that “The Earth system’s responses to climate change appear to be non-linear … If we venture far beyond the 2°C guardrail, towards the 4°C line, the risk of crossing tipping points rises sharply. The only way to avoid this is to break the business-as-usual pattern of production and consumption.”  This finding has been verified time and time again by international research efforts.  The 2°C “hard stop” demands that new coal-fired power plants, which if built can last half a century, must be avoided at all costs.

What is important in this formulation, that deserves repeating to all agencies involved in international development and the financing of infrastructure, education and other projects that are drivers of economic growth, appears in the preface of the report where World Bank President Jim Yon Kim emphasized that:

… most importantly, a 4°C world is so different from the current one that it comes with high uncertainty and new risks that threaten our ability to anticipate and plan for future adaptation needs.

The second significant development was President Obama’s watershed speech on June 25. (See “Obama Unveils Climate Change Strategy.”)  In that speech the president declared that to address climate change the United States will regulate and curtail greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants and end public financing of coal plants overseas. President Obama made dramatically clear that we can no longer mortgage our children’s future.  Furthermore, thanks to our innovative capacity, and with the dramatic advances in cost effectiveness and availability of renewable energy technologies, we can very clearly pivot the energy systems to define a clean energy future.

In response to Obama’s speech, Dr. Kim at the World Bank President noted that, “If we don’t confront climate change, we won’t end poverty,” which is the core mission of the Bank. Now he is poised to lead the bank to a historic step: a phaseout of new coal plant financing at the World Bank. When he finalizes this policy, he will have cemented his legacy as a transformational leader at the institution.

Today we have the perfect starting point to put the words of President Obama and Dr. Kim into action, because both the U. S. government and the World Bank are considering how to address the dire energy shortages and pollution problems that face Kosovo, which is home to the most polluting coal-fired power plant in Europe.  The World Bank and the U. S. government agree that this old, relic, power plant must be closed.  Its replacement is the issue.

Dr. Kim’s words show that it is time for the development community – both at the World Bank and in the U. S. government offices that engage in international development projects — to make climate-friendly development their exclusive priority. With climate science as our guide, and advances in clean energy technology at our back, we are poised to make the old dichotomy of environment versus development obsolete. The leadership is there, Kosovo is the opportunity, and now it is time to invest.

The combination of solar, wind, biomass, and hydropower available in Kosovo, combined with improvements in the grid can meet the nation’s energy needs without tying the poorest nation in Europe to coal. In an assessment of these resources, my laboratory has shown in a report published in 2012 that in Kosovo poverty reduction and climate change goals can be met at the same time.

With both President Obama and Dr. Kim agreed on the need to move public investments beyond coal to clean energy, what could be more straightforward than using the opportunity and need of the people of Kosovo to turn these outstanding words into action?

Daniel M. Kammen is the Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley, and in 2010-11 was the first Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency at the World Bank.  He serves today as an Energy and Climate Partner for the Americas Fellow for the U. S. State Department.