This file photo taken on August 4, 2019 shows an aerial view of an burnt area in a forest followinga fire in the Boguchansky district of Russia's Krasnoyarsk Krai. EKATERINA ANISIMOVA / AFP
This file photo taken on August 4, 2019 shows an aerial view of an burnt area in a forest followinga fire in the Boguchansky district of Russia's Krasnoyarsk Krai. EKATERINA ANISIMOVA / AFP

Moscow — A Russian city nestled in a vast forest known as the planet’s lungs has air so bad that the authorities regularly warn people to stay inside.

During frequent “black sky” events, Krasnoyarsk has forced factories to cut production and clocked the dirtiest air on the planet, beating out Mumbai and Guangzhou. Record temperatures in Siberia this year mean the city may not get a respite, with the forest fire season forecast to start in late June, a month ahead of usual.

Krasnoyarsk’s 1-million residents have found themselves on the front lines of climate change, facing toxic levels of smog in winter, when the coal-powered city’s emissions peak, and smoke from summer wildfires, which are already raging across the taiga.

“Black skies are common in Krasnoyarsk,” said Yulia Moiseeva, a resident who kept a supply of N95 masks well before the coronavirus pandemic made them ubiquitous. “The smog sometimes is so bad that it’s hard to see the next building.”

With temperatures in Russia rising at twice the global average, President Vladimir Putin grudgingly reversed his climate scepticism and ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement last year.

Covid-19 fallout

Yet, not even a six-week nationwide lockdown ordered by Putin through mid-May to contain the Covid-19 pandemic cleared the air: Krasnoyarsk’s huge industrial plants stayed open.

The health crisis will aggravate the pollution problem as the economic fallout of the pandemic forces locals to rely on cheaper, dirtier fuels for heat, according to United Company Rusal, the world’s biggest aluminium producer outside China.

In response, the authorities should accelerate plans to extend a natural gas pipeline to the city, Rusal CEO Evgeny Nikitin wrote to the government in an April 30 letter seen by Bloomberg News.

The national weather service says Krasnoyarsk had the dirtiest air of any Russian city in 2018, the latest data available. But Igor Shpeht, who set up a crowdsourced network of meters on volunteers’ balconies, said air quality is much worse than the authorities let on.

“Our air is ranked the worst in the world so often that we don’t even pay attention to the global Air Quality Index any more,” Shpeht said.

‘Optimistic scenario’

It may get worse. Even as Europe moves away from coal, Energy Minister Alexander Novak says Russia wants to boost production by more than 50% by 2035 under its “optimistic scenario.” Coal provides the half of the region’s electricity and is used extensively to heat private sector houses. Though Russia is the world’s biggest natural gas exporter, much of Siberia is not connected to the national pipeline network for the cleaner-burning fuel.

While Siberia gets half of its electricity from zero-emission hydroelectric stations, a dam 30km from Krasnoyarsk contributes to its pollution woes. The Yenisei river downstream never freezes, despite temperatures that average -16°C in January, creating steam that traps harmful particles and worsens the smog.

Krasnoyarsk’s air quality caught the attention of federal authorities after a 2018 visit by Putin and 2019’s fires in the taiga, a vital carbon sink that absorbs carbon dioxide for the planet.

New pipeline

The city is now part of a national clean air programme that calls for expanding the use of natural gas. The plan calls for a 570km gas pipeline from the Kemerovo region that regional governor Alexander Uss estimates will cost 120-billion roubles.

But the proposed pipeline was not included in Gazprom’s 2020 investment programme. Planned investments through 2025 are still under discussion, the state-run gas giant said in May.

The energy ministry declined to comment on the gas pipeline to Krasnoyarsk, but said there is a plan approved by the government to improve the air in Krasnoyarsk by 2024 that includes modernising the city’s heating systems and shutting down old boilers.

The cost of bringing gas to Krasnoyarsk would be about three times what Russia spends on gasification annually, according to Sergei Kapitonov, an analyst at Moscow’s Skolkovo Energy Center.

Regulated gas prices can be one-tenth what the average European consumer pays. That “creates a paradox where large regions of the country with the world’s biggest gas reserves do not have access to gas and must use coal for heat and electricity generation instead,” Kapitonov said.


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