Politics Society 16 August 2021

Siberian forest fires spotlight Russia’s carbon emissions

As a major supplier of fossil fuels, Russia has a big role to play in attempts to reduce the world’s carbon footprint. But there are few signs of progress. The record-breaking forest fires currently burning out of control in Siberia have highlighted how Russia not only exports huge amounts of hydrocarbons, but also releases enormous volumes of carbon into the atmosphere.

  • “The situation with forest fires in Russia remains extremely tense,” Alexander Kozlov, head of the Ministry of Natural Resources said this week. According to him, 7.8 million hectares have already been affected by fires – that’s 20 percent more than last year. President Vladimir Putin ordered the government to consider deploying the military and has made additional money available.
  • The most serious situation is in the far northern region of Yakutia. Emergency Situations Minister Yevgeny Zinichev flew there this week as smog from the infernos spread as far as Kazakhstan and the North Pole. Fires are also raging in many other areas of Siberia — smoke shrouds cities and airports are regularly forced to close due to visibility issues.
  • The problem is that Russia stopped putting out forest fires in hard-to-reach locations in 2015 because this was felt to be ‘economically unviable’ and dangerous to firefighters. Now, fires are only extinguished when they approach settlements. If the cost of fighting the fire outweighs the expected damage, it will be ignored. Despite this, while Yakutia burns, Russia found the money to send several firefighting aircraft to help tackle blazes in Greece and Turkey.
  • The UN Climate Report, and its grim prognosis for humanity, was one of the big stories in the world this week. In Russia, average temperatures are rising twice as fast as in the rest of the world, according to one of the authors of the report, Sergei Gulev, director of the Russian Academy of Science’s Oceanology Institute. “In the Arctic Ocean, we have lost 30 percent of the ice in the last 30 years and it is continuing to thaw and melt. Plus, the permafrost continues to melt, and that covers about half the territory of Russia,” he said.
  • Last year, Russia exceeded a 10-year-old record for air pollution, and CO2 emissions in the Arctic were up more than a third compared with 2019. According to the Russian authorities, Russia accounted for 4.5 percent of all CO2 emissions in 2019 (behind China, the U.S., the EU, and India).

Why the world should care: Russia is more than capable of breaking its CO2 emission record this year — not least because forest fires already cover a greater area than 2020. When you factor in the fossil fuels sold by Russia, the country is one of the world’s greatest polluters.