Siberian Black Skies Have Russia’s Dirtiest City Begging for Gas

A Russian city nestled in the vast Siberian forest — 2,000 miles and four times zones east of Moscow — has air so bad that the authorities regularly warn people to stay inside.

During frequent “black sky” events, caused by Soviet-era factories and coal-fired power plants, Krasnoyarsk has clocked the dirtiest air on the planet, beating out Mumbai and Guangzhou. The record temperatures in Siberia this year mean the city may not get any respite this summer, with the forestfire season forecast to start in late June, a month ahead of usual.

50,​820 Million metric tons of greenhouse emissions, most recent annual data

$81.​9B Renewable power investment worldwide in Q4 2019 +1.​06° C Apr. 2020 increase in global temperature vs. 1900s average 0 6 5 4 3 2 0 3 2 1 0 9 0 7 6 5 4 3 .0 7 6 5 4 3 0 7 6 5 4 3 0 7 6 5 4 3 0 1 0 9 8 7 0 0 9 8 7 6 0 3 2 1 0 9 Parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere 84% Carbon-free net power in Brazil, most recent data

Lucknow, IndiaMost polluted air today, in sensor range 0 3 2 1 0 9 ,0 8 7 6 5 4 0 5 4 3 2 1 0 4 3 2 1 0 Soccer pitches of forest lost this hour, most recent data -8.​68% Today’s arctic ice area vs. historic average

“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.”

Krasnoyarsk’s 1 million residents find themselves on the front lines of climate change, facing toxic levels of smog in winter, when coal-powered emissions peak, and in summer smoke fromwildfires. The city is emblematic of the wider environmental catastrophe in Siberia, a region bigger than the U.S., where global warming is melting the permafrost and burning one of the world’s biggest forests — known as the Taiga in Russian.

Last month, softening ground probably helped cause a fuel dump in the remote northern city ofNorilsk to leak 20,000 tons of diesel into an ecologically fragile river system, perhaps the worst spill in the Arctic since Alaska’s Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. President Vladimir Putin, long seen as skeptical on environmental protection, is starting to acknowledge the challenge, scolding the giant mining company responsible for the spill and considering pushing ahead with a stalled environment law.

The Covid-19 pandemic brings additional challenges. The health crisis will aggravate pollution as the economic fallout forces locals to rely on cheaper, dirtier fuels for heat, according toUnited Co. Rusal, the world’s biggest aluminum producer outside China and one of the city’s biggest employers.

In response, the authorities should accelerate plans to extend a natural gas pipeline to the city, Rusal Chief Executive Officer 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 crowd-sourced network of meters placed 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 over 50% by 2035 under its “optimistic scenario.” Coal provides the half of the region’s electricity and is used extensively to heat private houses. Although Russia is the world’s biggest natural gas exporter, much of Siberia isn’t 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 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Krasnoyarsk contributes to the pollution. The Yenisei river downstream never freezes, despite temperatures that average -16 degrees Celsius (3 degrees Farenheit) in January, creating steam that traps harmful particles and exacerbates the smog.

Krasnoyarsk’s air quality caught the attention of federal authorities following a 2018 visit by Putin and last year’sfires in the Taiga, a vital carbon sink that absorbs carbon dioxide for the entire planet.

New Pipeline

The city is now part of a national clean air program that calls for expanding the use of natural gas. The plan calls for a 570-kilometer gas pipeline from the Kemerovo region that regional governor Alexander Uss estimates will cost 120 billion rubles ($1.7 billion).

But the proposed pipeline wasn’t included inGazprom PJSC’s 2020 investment program. Planned investments through 2025 are still under discussion, the state-run gas giant said last month.

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 modernizing 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 don’t have access to gas and must use coal for heat and electricity generation instead,” Kapitonov said.

— With assistance by Dina Khrennikova

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