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Russia contains the largest area of natural forests in the world, covering 49% of Russia’s landmass and 815 million hectares, 23% of the planet’s total forest area. Yet, much of the country’s forests are under the threats of rapid deforestation. From 2001 to 2019, Russia lost 64 million hectares of relative tree cover, equivalent to an  8.4% decrease since 2000 and 17% of the global total. In 2018 alone, Russia lost 5.6 million hectares of tree cover followed by Brazil with nearly 3 million. What obstacles does Russia face in preventing deforestation?

Russia’s forests stretch from the Baltic Sea to the Sea of Japan, encompassing the last wild forests of Europe and a substantial portion of the vast wilderness of Siberia. With their ability to soak up carbon dioxide and expel oxygen, the world’s forests are often referred to as the “planet’s lungs.”

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deforestation russia

An illustration showing the top five countries in the world for forest area (Source: Weforum.org). 

Poor Forest Management

The forests of Russia are owned by the state and are used for commercial reasons by the private sector. Forests can only be licensed as concessions to enterprises for one to 49 years, but the Office of the President of the Russian Federation reported an approximate 66% increase in illegal logging from 2008 to 2013 in the Russian Federation. 

Action to combat illegal deforestation is taken by the Federal Forestry Agency of Russia, which is responsible for forest policy, regulation of forests as well as enacting new laws. The 2013 Russian Roundwood Act requires the timber process to have documentation for Roundwood transportation, logs of valuable hardwoods and Roundwood sales to be declared in an open-source database alongside the implementation of penalties for non-compliance with the law concerning the Roundwood transaction declaration.

Additionally, an export tax in 2008 aimed to restrict log exports, reduce the loss of forest resources and increase domestic processing, jobs, and revenue for the domestic forestry industry.

Despite this, there are millions of hectares where it is unclear whether they are agricultural or forest areas, making it difficult to understand where illegal logging takes place; the government and administrative bodies often lack the funds to get clear indications of this.

Most illegal logging occurs through permits being issued illegally. The UN has stated that 14.2% of timber firms experienced at least one bribe payment request in 2012 with an overall lack of transparency during concession licensing processes with unfair competition and licences issued based on auctions to the highest bidder or given to individuals with connections to the issuing authorities.

In general, with little oversight by the government and high levels of corruption, many illegal timber activities are left unchallenged resulting in deforestation in Russia occurring unabated.

China’s Wood Demand

China is the world’s largest importer of logs and lumber in the world, becoming a global wood product remanufacturing and redistribution centre. 48.3% of these lumber imports to China are supplied by Russia.

By Russia feeding China’s colossal appetite for wood, China has brought jobs and cash to regions of Russia. Yet China has sharply restricted domestic logging to preserve its own forests, as well as Russian timber facilities to only be staffed by Chinese labour.

Ms Avdoshkevich, the Kansk City Council member said that the Chinese timber barons based in China simply ship as much wood as they can, as quickly as possible, to China, without investment in manufacturing in Russia and without regard to environmental damage.

It is estimated that around 20% of the Russian wood exported to China is felled illegally, helping Russia to become a global leader in forest depletion.

Furthermore, corruption is allegedly widespread in the Russian timber industry. Nikolay Shmatkov from the WWF believes that the law enforcement officials are stretched to their limits and that they stand by without taking action with Russian forestry workers who sell the timber without necessary permissions to China.

Although China’s timber rush has temporarily stimulated Russia’s local economies, it has also stoked localised Russian public anger against China unwilling to let Russia truly benefit from its timber investments while destroying its forests.

Raging Wildfires

Since the start of 2020, it’s estimated by Greenpeace International that fires have burnt through 20 million hectares of the Russian landscape, an area bigger than Greece, and about 10.9 million hectares of forest. 

The Forestry Agency says the authorities will not extinguish 91% of the fires because they are located in “control zones.” Forests fall into control zones when the fires have no effect on local populations and when the cost of extinguishing them is greater than the residual damage of the fires.

“The role of fires in climate change is underestimated. Most of the fires are man-made,” said Grigory Kuksin, head of the fire protection department at Greenpeace Russia.

While the Russian government has previously declared states of emergency and dispatched the military to help firefighting efforts, local authorities have dismissed the wildfires as a natural occurrence, saying that putting out wildfires is not economically viable.

Environmental Damage in Russia Beyond Deforestation

In addition to the destruction of carbon-absorbing forests across Russia, the carbon dioxide, smoke and soot released have increased temperatures, with the winter of 2019 being the warmest winter in 130 years according to the Russian Hydrometeorological Research Center. It is these conditions that have invigorated heat and dry tundra conditions triggering forest fires along the Arctic Circle.

“Now we are seeing these fires within 15 kilometres of the Arctic Ocean,” according to Greg Henry, a climatologist and tundra researcher at the University of British Columbia. “Usually there’s not much fuel to burn there, because it’s kept cold by the ocean so you don’t get ignition of fires that far north.”

In turn, by burning so close to the Arctic, the fires are contributing to the thawing of Arctic permafrost which, in some cases, can lead to sudden ground collapse. The Western Russian Arctic is experiencing some of the highest rates of permafrost degradation globally with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasting that by 2050, near-surface permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere may shrink by 15 to 30%. 

“When surface soil rich in organic matter burns, it places the permafrost at risk which serves as an insulator against warm summer temperatures,” explains Sue Natali, Arctic programme director at Woods Hole Research Centre. 

Permafrost degradation risks the collapsing of infrastructure as well as the release of carbon feedback.

Another implication of forest fires in the Arctic Circle is the burning of peatlands, carbon-rich soils that accumulate as waterlogged plants slowly decay, sometimes over thousands of years. These are the most carbon-dense ecosystems on Earth; a typical northern peatland packs in roughly ten times as much carbon as a boreal forest and nearly half the world’s peatland-stored carbon lies between 60 and 70 degrees north, along the Arctic Circle. 

As a result of Arctic wildfires, northern peatlands could eventually shift from being a sink for carbon to a source, further dramatically accelerating climate change.

Russia ’s lacklustre response to tackle deforestation is in line with the country’s low commitment to addressing climate change, relying heavily on the oil and gas industry as well as having a poor record of enforcing green initiatives that could have greater negative global climate effects simply from not addressing deforestation and for short-term economic gains.

Featured image by: Flickr

A mysterious pollution outbreak in Kamchatka, Russia, has left many marine species, including seals, octopuses and sea urchins, washing up on Avacha Bay since September. Scientists have reported that as much as 95% of marine species along the seabed have been killed in what is being treated as a major marine pollution incident.

Ordinarily, the bay is a pristine 1 250-kilometre-long volcanic peninsula well-known for its exceptional landscapes with 160 large symmetrical volcanoes and diversity of wildlife.

The pollution incident came to light in early September after local surfers and swimmers reported stinging eyes and the water changing colour to a greyish-yellow with a thick milky foam on the surface. Officials later reported that people partaking in activities in the sea have sustained mild burns to their corneas.

This prompted Greenpeace to call the incident an “ecological disaster” and backlash from the public led Russia’s Investigative Committee to launch an investigation into the area for the “circulation of environmentally hazardous substances and waste.” Tests showed levels of oil products and phenol that were 3.6 and 2.5 times higher than usual, after Kamchatka’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology’s initial insistence that there was no such issue, saying that “nothing abnormal” had been recorded. 

No Answers

It is still unclear what caused the contamination; however, authorities have confirmed that all possible sources are being investigated. Officials are scrambling to find the origin after President Vladimir Putin reacted angrily to the late reporting of an oil leak in Arctic Siberia that poured thousands of tons of diesel into land and waterways in June. In turn, the ecology minister, Dmitry Kobylkin, stated that Putin had ordered him to establish the cause of the Kamchatka water contamination.

The Emergencies Ministry said it was using boats and drones to monitor the coastline but no pollution was visible. The regional governor, Vladimir Solodov, said it was a problem that the region had no unified system of environmental monitoring.

Local media outlets have speculated about a possible oil tanker leak or military drill gone wrong, which the Defence Ministry has denied. More alarming is that some experts have suggested that highly toxic rocket fuel such as heptyl, samin or mélange could have leaked into the sea. The first test site, Radygino, is about ten km from the sea and was used for drills in August.

Vladimir Burkanov, a biologist specialising in seals, suggested that old stores of rocket fuel kept in Radygino could have rusted and the fuel leaked into streams.

Moreover, the site of Kozelsky, approximately 15km from  the sea, has been used to bury toxic chemicals and pesticides, according to the regional governor’s website. Greenpeace says that stores of over 100 tonnes of toxic substances, including pesticides, had been breached.

While authorities in Russia are opening criminal cases into the Kamchatka crisis by examining man-made pollution, they have refused to rule out the possibility that the pollution could have been caused by a natural phenomena, such as seismic activity or microalgae.

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kamchatka russia pollution
Source: BBC News

Potential Threat to World Heritage Sites

While specialists continue to collect samples, scientists say. that the contaminated area is much larger than what they have examined and that the remaining marine life is under threat due to lack of food; some large fish, shrimps and crabs have survived, “but in very small quantities.” However, these too may die as their food supply has been destroyed.

After Greenpeace recently surveyed the territory, the water pollution has been identified in parts of Kamchatka’s World Heritage Site. This includes Vilyuchinskaya Bay that is home to 50% of the world’s Stellar Sea Eagle population.

Traces of the contaminants were also found in the basin and mouth of the Nalychev River, which flows through the Nalychevo Nature Park and is home to a wide variety of species, including the world’s greatest known diversity of salmonid fish, as well as brown bears and sea otters.  “The death of fish and seabed creatures is dangerous for both sea birds and mammals,” WWF says, adding that sea otters that eat urchins and clams could be among the most affected animals.

It is still unclear how much the pollutants will negatively affect the peninsula’s natural ecosystem.

Environmental Pressures

Despite Putin ordering for an immediate investigation into the cause of the Kamchatka water contamination, possibly permafrost thaw in Siberia, Russia’s environmental action is driven with no clear climate policy. As domestic policies continue to focus on its heavily subsidised oil and gas industry, with a strong emphasis on expanding natural gas exports, the Russian Ministry of Energy has explicitly identified the promotion of renewable energy to be a direct threat to planned fossil fuel expansion. Russia accounts for 4.5% of global emissions, behind China, USA and India.

Furthermore, Russia’s industries are not being encouraged to reduce emissions and deal with pollution, drawing a general consensus that there continues to be a lack of action across the board on environmental policy; hence, Russia’s environmental future remains somewhat bleak. 

However, the 2017 Russian Year of Ecology, announced by President Vladimir Putin, was a step towards changing public and policy attitudes towards pollution and other environmental problems in Russia, a welcome development. Further, there are numerous local and citizen-led projects across the country, including Greenpeace Russia, that are assisting authorities in their investigative efforts. 

Perhaps in this way, the government of Russia, supranational bodies, international partners and heavy industries can be influenced to enact much-needed environmental policies and procedures to reduce and tackle the effects of pollution, with this crisis in Kamchatka potentially acting as a turning point for the government and the public to take climate action.

Featured image by: Flickr

Siberia is experiencing a prolonged heatwave, with unusually high temperatures linked to wildfires, a huge oil spill and a plague of tree-eating moths. Climate scientists have said this heatwave is ‘undoubtedly alarming’ and will push the world towards its hottest year on record. 

Russian towns in the Arctic circle have recorded extraordinarily high temperatures, with Nizhnyaya Pesha hitting 30℃ on June 9 and Khatanga, which usually has temperatures of around 0℃ this time of year, hitting 25℃ on May 22. The highest temperature recorded previously was 12℃. 

Throughout May, temperatures in parts of Siberia were up to 10C above average, according to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S). The Danish Meteorological Institute said that these abnormal temperatures seen in north-west Siberia would be likely to happen once in 100 000 years without anthropogenic climate change.

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Freja Vamborg, a senior scientist at C3S, says, “Although the planet as a whole is warming, this isn’t happening evenly. Western Siberia stands out as a region that shows more of a warming trend with higher variations in temperature. So to some extent large temperature anomalies are not unexpected. However, what is unusual is how long the warmer-than-average anomalies have persisted for.”

Temperatures in the polar regions are increasing fastest because ocean currents carry heat towards the poles, melting reflective ice and snow rapidly.

From January to May, Russia experienced record high temperatures in 2020, with the average temperature 5.3℃ above the 1951-1980 average. 

Russian president, Vladimir Putin, commented on the heat, saying that some cities in Russia were built north of the Arctic circle on permafrost.

Causes of the Siberia Heatwave

Thawing permafrost is partly to blame for an oil spill in Siberia this month that prompted a national emergency being declared by the government. According to its operators, the supports of the storage tank suddenly sank, while green groups have also blamed poorly maintained infrastructure.

Wildfires have also torn through Siberia’s forests, ravaging hundreds of thousands of hectares. Fires are often started in the spring to clear vegetation, however high temperatures and strong winds associated with the heatwave in Siberia caused some fires to burn out of control.

Additionally, swarms of the Siberian silk moth, whose larvae eat conifer trees, have grown rapidly in warming temperatures. These larvae strip the trees of their needles and make them more susceptible to fires.

The planet is set to record its hottest year on record in 2020, despite a temporary dip in carbon emissions due to lockdown measures from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Featured image by: Gael Varoquaux

Russia has announced a national-level state of emergency after 21 000 tons of diesel fuel spilled from a reservoir that collapsed in late May. The spill has polluted large stretches of Arctic rivers- colouring tundra waterways bright red- and was caused by melting permafrost, according to Russian officials. While Russia has ordered a review of infrastructure in vulnerable zones, this oil spill incident highlights the danger of the climate crisis for Russia as areas locked by permafrost for centuries thaw amid rising temperatures. 

Norilsk Oil Spill: The Effects

The spill happened when a fuel tank at a power plant near the city of Norilsk collapsed. A subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer, owns the plant. According to reports, a criminal case has been launched, as there was reportedly a two-day delay in informing the Moscow authorities about the spill. Minister for Emergencies in Russia Yevgeny Zinichev claims that the plant spent two days trying to contain the oil spill before alerting his ministry, however Norilsk Nickel says that the incident was reported in a ‘timely and proper’ way.

The oil leaked at least 12km from the accident site, turning stretches of the Ambarnaya River deep red and has overall contaminated a 350 sq km area.The spill also polluted 180 000 sq metres of land before reaching the river, regional prosecutors said.

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russia oil spill
A gif showing the reach of the oil spill in Norilsk, Russia (Source: European Space Agency).

The Ambarnaya River feeds into Lake Pyasino, a major body of water and the source of the Pyasina River that is extremely important to the entire Taimyr peninsula. Satellite images released by the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos show that a large spot of reddish fuel travelled over 20km towards the lake from the spill site. 

President Vladimir Putin told Norilsk Nickel chief Vladimir Potanin that he expects the company to pay for clean-up operations. Potanin estimates that the operations will cost about US$146 million, on top of any fines, and says, “We will spend whatever is needed. We will return the ecosystem back to normal.” The country’s technical safety watchdog says that since 2016, it has been unable to check the condition of the reservoir, because the company said it was under repairs. 

Floating barriers erected on the river by responders are unable to stop most of the pollution, which can quickly dissolve or sink, according to Russia’s fisheries agency. 

The state of emergency means that extra forces are going to the area to assist with the clean-up operation, however environmental groups say that the scale of the spill and geography of the river mean it will be difficult to clean up. 

The area has been affected by decades of pollution from metals production and other activities in Norilsk, which is Russia’s most polluted city.

Environmentalists say that the spill is the worst such accident ever in the Arctic region and Alexei Knizhnikv, an expert from the World Wildlife Fund, says that the accident is believed to be the second largest in modern Russian history in terms of volume. 

He added that despite melting permafrost, the incident could have been avoided if the company followed the rules, such as erecting a barrier around its fuel reservoir to contain spillage.

Arctic permafrost has been melting in exceptionally warm weather for this time of year; Russia recently experienced its warmest winter temperatures ever recorded. Moscow reported temperatures 7.5 degrees Celsius above average and set 11 all-time daily temperature records. 

Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the world average. 65% of the country is covered by permafrost and the environment ministry warned in 2018 that the melting of permafrost threatens pipes and structures, as well as buried toxic waste, which can seep into waterways. This makes it all the more important that Russia follows through with its climate action targets. In September 2019, the nation formally ratified the Paris Agreement, saying that climate change could endanger key sectors like agriculture as well as the ‘safety of people living in areas with permafrost’ and has pledged to reduce emissions to 25 to 30% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Update, June 29: Norilsk Nickel has said that it has suspended workers at a metals plant who were responsible for pumping wastewater into nearby Arctic tundra. The workers dumped about 6 000 cubic metres of liquid used to process minerals at the facility. The plant says that it is impossible to determine how far the wastewater has dispersed.

Update July 31: Norilsk Nickel has been fined $2.1bn over the spill.

Featured image: ESA

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