There's something in the air in Russia


Russia’s cities are choking. If we’re going to change the state of air pollution in this country, we need to open up data, monitoring and public engagement. Русский

Angelina Davydova
20 November 2015

According to global statistics, Russia’s air pollution levels are slightly higher than the European average, but much lower than in China and India. These overall figures do not, however, take into account Russia’s particular conditions.

For a start, its people are very unevenly distributed over its enormous territory, with more than two thirds living in European Russia. They are also heavily concentrated in urban areas – 15 cities have more than a million inhabitants – where high population density means a greater threat to the environment. Some heavily industrialised Russian cities, including, for example, Norilsk in remote Siberia, regularly feature in lists of the most polluted cities in the world.

World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics for 2014 show Russian particle pollution (also called particulate matter or PM) of fine particles up to 2.5mm in diameter at an annual 22mg, and coarse particles (between 2.5 and 10mm in diameter) at 30mg per head of population. The corresponding figures for China are 40mg and 90mg; for the UK 14mg and 20 mg.

According to Aleksei Yablokov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Environmental Research Council, about 14% of the Russian land mass is defined as being of environmental concern, with 67m people living at the limit of permissible levels of atmospheric pollution; 27m at five times the limit and 12m at 10 times the limit. ‘In Moscow alone air pollution accounts for 5,000 extra deaths a year,’ Yablokov tells me. ‘That’s twice as many as the number of road deaths.’

Public ignorance

In Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities in European Russia, more than 80% of atmospheric pollution is caused by traffic. These are, however, not the most polluted parts of Russia.” Those are far from the capital, situated in seemingly idyllic natural areas such as Siberia and the Urals which are where the country’s mining, chemical and other heavy industries are concentrated.

‘Air quality is a big issue here,’ says Aleksandr Kolotov, an environmental expert from Krasnoyarsk, Siberia’s third largest city. ‘We regularly have to go into “black sky mode”, when industrial plants are recommended to drop their emissions levels because of bad weather conditions. Every public discussion of our general environmental situation includes the problem of atmospheric pollution.’

The most polluted cities are in apparently idyllic remote areas such as Siberia and the Urals.

The Russian public is, however, mostly unaware of the worrying statistics collected by both scientific experts and government bodies. Only a fifth of regions have their own pollution monitoring systems, and half of their checks on air quality are not carried out to an acceptable standard. It is impossible to obtain statistically sound data from them.

The other 80% of regions have to pay for reports from the environmental watchdog Roshydromet, which has 600 observation posts in 225 towns and cities, but many regions can’t afford this service. So neither the regional authorities, nor their populace have any information about the quality of the air they breathe.

Even in those cities and regions where monitoring is carried out reasonably well, whether by either Roshydromet or the local authority, the picture is still far from clear. Often, figures are compiled as an average for the given area over a given period, with no account taken of individual locations and times.

Locally collected data may also contradict Roshydromet figures. Monitoring posts are set up in a variety of sites (Roshydromet officers are often critical of local authorities for putting them in untypically ‘clean’ areas: parks, riverbanks, edges of towns, where lower pollution levels will be found) and measure different indicators differently, so the data collected is contradictory and incomprehensible to the public.

Can you trust the data?

Some attempts are, however, being made to improve not only monitoring but also industrial practices. The city of Dzerzhinsk, 250 miles east of Moscow, has been a major centre of the chemical industry since the Soviet era and featured for many years in the list of dirtiest cities on the planet. In 2014, however, it finally dropped off the Environmental Ministry’s ‘Thirty Most Polluted Cities’ chart.

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In Moscow alone air pollution accounts for 5,000 extra deaths a year. (cc) Alexey Nikolaev/DemotixAs the regional Dzerzhinsk Times wrote: ‘The city authority puts the improved figures down to a combination of increased attention to environmental safety in industrial plants and improved environmental monitoring, while excluding the existing cumulative environmental damage from the data.’ Local environmentalists and journalists believe, however, that ‘the officials used a bureaucratic trick to massage the figures.’

Since mid-2014. Russia’s regulations on formaldehyde levels in the atmosphere have been relaxed, lowering the apparent level of this substance more than twofold in many cities, including Dzerzhinsk, wrote the weekly. Roshydromet figures, by contrast, show an overall rise.

Another example is the city of Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia in Russia’s North Caucasus, whose inhabitants have to pay an outside organisation to monitor their air quality. According to local environmental scientists, one of the region’s main polluters is the Elektrozink metallurgical plant, but Roshydromet reports show that no monitoring takes place in the district where the plant is located.

Other districts of the city are monitored, but incompletely – three times a day, six days a week. So average annual indicators show acceptable emission levels, although some measurements indicate higher than permitted levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen peroxide and nitrogen oxide.

Environmental experts accuse Elektrozink of releasing toxic substances into the atmosphere at night. Concerned residents point out that no one apart from the company itself has access to information on this subject; no other laboratories monitor overnight emissions and there is no system for warning residents about possible hazardous discharges, so all they have to go on are their own perceptions.

In 2012, a group of Vladikavkaz residents and civic activists raised money for an independent assessment of soil and air quality in the residential areas around the plant by specialists from the St Petersburg Centre for Expertise and Research, revealing that the permitted levels of numerous toxic substances are exceeded frequently.

Public protest

Given the lack of access to information about air quality, public protests against air pollution in Russia generally concentrate either on companies known to be pollutants and new infrastructure projects such as motorways, or the protection of threatened green zones.

In Moscow, for example, current protest campaigns include opposition to the building of a stadium on the site of the existing Park Druzhby (Friendship Park); a road to be built across the 18th century French style Kuskovo Park, regarded as one of the most beautiful in all of Russia and the felling of trees in Kokoshkino, a village incorporated in the recent expansion of the capital known as ‘New Moscow’.

One of Vladikavkaz’s main polluters is the Elektrozink metallurgical plant, but there are no air quality monitors nearby.

Further east, in the Siberian town of Krasnoyarsk, a group of environmental specialists and local residents is currently fighting for the survival of a wood inside the city limits. The wood is threatened by plans for the Universiade Krasnoyarsk 2019, a worldwide student winter sports competition. Another group has won its campaign against the construction of a ferroalloy plant, thanks to protest actions and a media campaign that led to a referendum on the issue. It has now started a new campaign against a planned nuclear waste burial site outside the city.

Lower eco-activity in industrial areas

Large industrial centres and company cities dependent on one plant (monogorodki) are a separate issue. Residents are reluctant to protest against the region’s main employer whose activities are crucial to the local economy, even though they are aware of the risks to their health.

For instance, the US-based NGO Pure Earth (formerly the Blacksmith Institute) and the International Green Cross include the Siberian city of Norilsk in their top ten list of worst polluted areas in the world, as well as being the most polluted place in Russia. The main source of pollution is Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest nickel and palladium mining and smelting company. Recently the company has been modernising its facilities (in 2014, for example, it announced the closure of its oldest nickel processing plant), but the level of atmospheric pollution is still ten times higher than the Russian average (and 25 times higher than in Moscow).

Nevertheless, Natalia Paramonova, an environmental journalist who has spent several months investigating Norilsk’s problems, tells me that, ‘despite the terrible air pollution, there are no protest meetings or attempts to sue the company, and the locals just don’t want to talk about the issue. Over the years that Norilsk Nickel has been here, the city and its inhabitants have been absorbed into the company, so it’s difficult to talk about serious protests.’

As a result, most expressions of discontent are to be found online. Local resident Anastasia Garipova writes on VKontakte, a popular Russian social network: ‘Everybody knows that the plant is poisoning Norilsk. The gas has killed off all the local forest, and there are no plants growing on the tundra around the industrial zone. People don’t even want to think about their health; they just ignore the cloud hanging over the city: it’s like “gas again”, like you might say “rain again” or “a traffic jam again” – it’s a nuisance but it’s not fatal.’


The Siberian city of Norilsk is one of the top ten worst polluted areas in the world. CC: Hans Olav Lien‘If you go outside on any given day, there’s a 30-40% chance you can taste sulphur dioxide or other toxic gases in your mouth,’ resident Roman Melnikov told the online newspaper Polar Star. ‘In fact you don’t even need to go outside: if you open a window it comes into your home. And the gas isn’t the only pollutant affecting the environment and our lungs: there is also the dust that pours out of the mine ventilation shafts and settles everywhere.’

Some improvement, but more needed

Over the last few years the Environmental Ministry has been looking at Russia’s environmental protection legislation, amending old laws and passing new ones. Among them is a law passed in 2014, designed to stimulate the adoption of best available technologies (BAT), including those relating to clean air.

By 2017,the Ministry plans to have monitoring devices installed at all large sources of industrial pollution, with the data collected available not only to government bodies but to the public as well. This monitoring should in theory put an end to unlawful emissions (overnight discharges, for example) whose sources can be difficult to establish – this is a regular occurrence even in Moscow.

People say “it’s gas again” like you might say “ it’s raining again” – it’s a nuisance, but it’s not fatal.

Most environmental specialists are fairly positive about the reforms, including those on air quality; their main caveats are about their implementation across the regions. In cities where several large companies play an important role in the local economy (or have close links with the local authorities), the regulatory bodies might turn a blind eye to obvious breaches, or the company might simply pay them off or choose to pay endless small fines. Another important factor is the need to take air quality into account during planning discussions, something few cities do at present.

Environmental specialists see the third element in future developments as the involvement of local residents and organisations in decisions on issues and priorities for future urban planning. The present system of public councils and hearings tends to be a purely formal one.

‘The right of citizens to take part in the decision-taking process on planning issues was officially established many years ago’, says Artyom Alekseev, a lawyer at St Petersburg’s Bellona environmental protection centre, ‘but their opportunity to do this is limited by the very authorities that run the public hearings: they do not provide proper information; they fulfil the formal demands of the law but where possible they exploit its weaknesses, abuse their administrative resources and falsify results.’

A new source of pollution

Traffic fumes are an ever growing source of air pollution in most large Russian cities. Some cities are beginning to introduce restrictions on types of vehicle and fuel that don’t meet certain environmental standards, to develop pedestrian and cycle facilities and to modernise their public transport systems, but is a slow process and is resisted but certain population groups (mostly motorists).

While motor traffic in cities has long been a controversial issue in the West, for Russia it is a new and growing health problem. According to Boris Revich, an environment and public health specialist at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Economic Forecasting, the concentration of small airborne particles from petrol and diesel engines cause about 40,000 extra deaths in Russia each year, and are a particular risk to people living near major roads.

Aleksei Yablokov puts it even more clearly, citing Novosibirsk as a city where there is a direct correlation between the air quality and death rates. ‘The more polluted the air, the higher the rate,’ he tells me. ‘On average, 300 additional cars give one extra death every three months.’

At the same time, Russian cities still lack a ‘critical mass’ of citizens whose strong ‘green’ views could stand up against the well organised motorists’ lobby, which wins all the planning arguments on things such as parking facilities and the pedestrianisation of city centres.

Mikhail Blinkin, director of the Institute of Transport Economics and Transport Policy at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, says that for many Russians, car ownership is still a status symbol; the market is still far from saturation point. ‘Many Muscovites living in cramped rented flats on the outskirts of the capital and working eight to ten hour days in their offices in central Moscow, literally “live” in the comfortable cars where they spend two to four hours daily. It’s comfy there; they listen to their favourite music and enjoy their own space – which they don’t have anywhere else.’

The planning specialist believes that the only way to change these habits is to develop comfortable, fast and convenient public transport (the famous Moscow Metro is already overstretched). In contrast to the city authorities, who still tend to think that the way out is to build yet more roads, Blinkin argues for the gradual introduction of disincentives on urban traffic, such as paid parking, which Moscow has already begun to implement and St Petersburg is about to.

Many specialists are now supporting the idea of restrictions on cars in cities, while environmental organisations and groups have been calling for improved public transport and facilities for pedestrians and cyclists - and have been successful in some cities.

But most experts and researchers still tend to think that to change the trend—to persuade drivers to accept restrictions on owning and using cars, and to slow down the growth in sales of new cars—will be a long and slow process, and will demand a dramatic change in the public mindset.

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