Environmentalists in Blinders

Extremely "green" activists have a strange way of going about improving the environment. Consider their behavior in the battle over a proposal to build a power plant in Kosovo.

Kosovo gets its electricity from two power plants built when the southeastern European nation was part of Communist-run Yugoslavia. Back then, a state-owned corporation ran the plants and — in typical communist fashion — also managed restaurants, transportation and health care enterprises.

After decades of opaque government ownership, the older of these plants now has earned a rather dubious honor. The World Bank has named it "the worst single-point source of pollution" in Europe. Air pollution in Kosovo reportedly causes 835 premature deaths and some 11,600 emergency room visits a year.

The proposed solution is to close the oldest, dirtiest plant, refurbish the other and build a brand new power plant. But environmental activists will have none of it. The trouble with the plan, from their point of view, is that the new plant will be powered by coal.

Why coal? It so happens that Kosovo is sitting on the world's fifth largest reserves of lignite coal.

According to the World Bank, replacing the old plant with a new one and refurbishing the other existing plant would make a huge improvement in air quality. Specifically, it would reduce particulate matter by 90 percent and cut emissions of air pollutants like SOx and NOx by 70 percent. But environmental activists are so locked on their opposition to this "dirty fossil fuel" that they can't see these incredible health and environmental improvements to the lives of Kosovars.

The same story has been played out in South Africa and Pakistan. There, the U.S. and some international aid groups were swayed to vote against foreign aid for new coal plants because of the alleged contribution to global warming.

It is happening here in America too, where many of those activists occupy seats of power as unelected federal bureaucrats promulgating President Obama's climate action plan. But even if the entire industrialized world stoppered all carbon dioxide emissions today — no coal power plants, driving, using household appliances, turning on the light switch or running factories — only 0.278 degrees Celsius in heat would be averted by the end of this century.

The problem with this activism is much bigger, though. The key to a healthy environment is economic prosperity. As the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal's Index of Economic Freedom has shown consistently over the decades, wealthier nations are cleaner nations, for the simple reason that they can afford to be. People trapped in poverty do not have the luxury of caring for endangered species or managing air quality, let alone having resources to develop technological advances to use natural resources more efficiently. In other words, if you care about protecting the environment, you should work like the dickens to advance economic development.

One of the most important ingredients to economic growth, whether in Kosovo or Kansas, is access to affordable, reliable energy. That's exactly what a modern, coal-fired power plant could give the people of Kosovo, and exactly what they currently lack.

Someone wanting to open a small business in Kosovo now has to wait, on average, more than two months to get connected to the electrical grid. Medium firms must wait over four months. And once you're on the grid, you can expect power outages on 11 days of every month.

Small wonder the unemployment rate is more than 30 percent. That's why the World Bank identifies access to electricity as one of the biggest barriers to economic growth in Kosovo.

Radical environmentalists may wave their signs and think they're helping to save the earth. But economic development fueled by affordable, reliable energy is far more effective in lifting people out of poverty and taking care of the earth we live on, the water we drink and the air we breathe.

About the Author

Katie Tubb Policy Analyst
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Originally appeared in the Washington Times