WASHINGTON - U.S. environmentalists seeking to turn up the heat on the coal industry, which they blame for a litany of problems, are targeting two banks they say have taken the lead in financing mines.
Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp. are the targets of a new campaign launched Tuesday by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN).
The effort also is aimed at shoring up U.S. credibility on climate change in future talks with China and India, which lead the world in burning coal, a principal source of the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide.
"From cradle to grave, coal is dirty," said Rebecca Tarbotton, the group's global finance campaign director.
The banks can expect "a ruckus in the streets" and questions from shareholders but plans do not call for consumer boycotts, Tarbotton said.
To press its cause, RAN has teamed up with the Interfaith Council on Corporate Responsibility, an investment network of 275-plus religious institutions, and organisers of Step It Up, a series of nationwide anti-global warming demonstrations, the next of which is planned for Nov. 3.
The banks had no direct comment on the campaign but told IPS they embraced environmental concerns.
"Citi, together with its clients, environmental organisations and other stakeholders, is taking a responsible and strong leadership position on climate change and is on record as supporting comprehensive efforts to move forward on the complicated issue of climate change," said Citi spokeswoman Valerie Hendy. "Moreover, we have committed 50 billion dollars, more than any other institution, over the next 10 years for climate-friendly efforts."
The world's largest bank received top marks from the Carbon Disclosure Project, an independent organisation that works with shareholders and corporations, for its efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, Hendy added. Citi has promised a 10-percent cut in carbon emissions from its operations by 2011 "and we are investing in climate-friendly enterprises and engaging with our clients on their carbon reduction efforts," she said.
A Bank of America spokesman said coal remained vital to the U.S. power supply.
"The reality is that, as a country, over 50 percent of the electricity we all consume comes from coal," said the spokesman, Ernesto Anguilla. "Bank of America is aggressively investing in and financing the development and use of cleaner renewable energies."
Campaigners said the banks were not doing enough.
Citi's 50-billion-dollar pledge, made in May, "may seem like a significant commitment [but] it amounts to less than 0.2 percent of the company's 2.2 trillion dollars in assets," RAN said.
Last year alone, Citi provided 200 times more financing for "dirty energy" than it did for alternative technologies such as wind, solar, or geothermal power, Tarbotton said.
Likewise, RAN decried as insufficient a recent Bank of America pledge to support eco-friendly businesses and to address climate change. Last year, it added, the firm spent nearly 100 times more money on high-polluting projects than it did on cleaner alternatives.
Electricity generated from coal is the leading cause of global warming in the United States, according to RAN. It also is the largest source of toxic mercury and a top contributor to air pollution, asthma, and ecological destruction.
Coal is abundant: The United States is estimated to have around 200 years' worth of reserves, mostly under the Appalachian Mountains and in the Southwest. Interest in coal is rising amid increasing demand for energy and pressure to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Already, plans call for the construction of 150 new coal-fired power plants across the country. Citi and Bank of America rank among the top lenders to companies involved in the expansion, according to RAN.
"This new coal rush would add between 600 million and 1.1 billion tonnes of additional carbon dioxide emissions annually and negate nearly every other effort currently on the table to combat climate change," the group said, adding that each new power plant would have a lifespan of about 50 years.
If the plans are realised, "in the next five years the U.S. coal power sector will exceed India's and rival China's," said Tarbotton.
In consequence, "the United States will have no credibility in trying to get them to clean up their acts," added Step It Up founder Bill McKibben.
Coal mining is responsible for thousands of deaths each year and the ruin of entire ecosystems and communities, RAN said in a report released to coincide with the launch of the campaign.
Coal companies say they are working to reduce carbon emissions by developing cleaner, more efficient fuel. Their opponents insist that future energy demand should be met by tapping renewable sources that are clean and in infinite supply. Among these are the wind, sun, tides, and heat trapped under the earth.
"We basically have better options," said Tarbotton.
© 2007 Inter Press Service