“When you buy coal, you have a moral right to ask where it came from”

A new report highlights a stark truth: the UK’s dependence on international coal not only devastates the environment, but disenfranchises local communities.

Vladimir Slivyak Editors of OpenDemocracy Russia
27 May 2016

A view of the Ulyanovskaya mine near Novokuznetsk, Kemerovo. Misha Japaridze / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The grey-and-black coalfields of Siberia’s Kuzbass are home to Russia’s export coal industry. Billions of tonnes of coal lie submerged in the ground here, and roughly 200m tonnes is dug out for transport and stockpile every year through open cast mining. This extraction business, subsidised partially by the Russian state, has significant impacts not only in terms of air and water pollution in the region, but on indigenous communities, who face being bought out or run off their land. 

Some 4,000 miles away, the UK may be decreasing coal imports, but we still get 43% of our thermal coal imports every year from the Kuzbass. As the government considers phasing out coal power completely, a new report “Ditch Coal” by the Coal Action Network highlights the environmental and political effects of this dependency, whether in the UK or Russia.

This month, the Coal Action Network starts its tour of the UK. We sat down with one of the people involved — Vladimir Slivyak, co-chair of Russian environmental group Ecodefence — to talk about environmental activism and the coal industry in Russia.

oDR: How do you see the connection between the UK’s dependence on coal and Russia’s coal industry?

VS: Well, Russia sells coal to the UK! In Europe, the UK is the largest consumer of Russian coal, second to China. My organisation, Ecodefence, which has been running for 26 years, looks at the consequences of coal mining in Russia — and this is an unexplored issue. In fact, the movement against coal in Russia is only just beginning.

oDR: So, coal has been outside of Russian environmental groups’ focus. Why is that?

VS: There are different reasons. For example, nuclear energy is historically a big issue because of Chernobyl — independent environmental groups emerged in Russia at the end of the 1980s in direct consequence of Chernobyl.

But in Russia, generally, people are concentrated on environmental problems that they can see. So coal is an important topic in the region where it’s mined, but most people who use it cannot see the problems, the consequences of coal mining themselves. In some places, sometimes, there are protests against new power plants that run on coal.

When you buy coal, you’re also obtaining a moral right to ask: where does this coal come from? And not just of the coal companies, but the Russian government, too

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Russia had a strong environmental movement, but by the mid-1990s, popularity among the masses had dropped off for economic reasons. That experience showed that when people are united, they are able to change things. By the 1990s, most people were trying to figure out how to survive on a daily basis, how to make a little money, how to feed their families. Historically, if you went and conducted an opinion poll somewhere at this time, and you ask what kind of issues people are interested in, environmental problems would be at the top — not number one, but up there. 

Russia’s different from developed countries where a lot of people have time and money to get involved in things like environmental activity: in a country that’s totally poor, it’s hard to expect people to care about environmental problems. Russia’s economy may have picked up in the early 2000s, but now we’re in the deepest economic crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We can’t expect large amounts of people to come out onto to the street for environmental protests — people are more likely to mobilise around jobs. 

oDR: Do you see any room for bringing environmental politics and broader socio-economic questions together in Russia? Does divestment have any prospects in Russia?

VS: Speaking about divestment, for me, it’s hard to see how this will work in Russia. Things are built in a different way there. We don’t have private enterprise; top government officials are behind big business in Russia. You take any company involved in fossil fuel extraction, be it gas, oil or coal, there will likely be top government official behind it, they will likely have shares.

One of the results of this is that big companies receive money from the federal budget. For the coal industry, it’s VTB bank. In Ecodefence’s film Condemned, we showed that a lot of foreign banks are involved in funding coal operations in Russia, but the amount of money they invest is minimal compared to that of the state. The government basically subsidises them, so the coal companies don’t feel as if they’re working in an open market, that they have to compete with other companies. And the industry’s making big losses due to low coal prices and consumption falling.

Nevertheless, in regions where coal companies operate, the top management continues to receive huge money, and the workers – miserly pay. Even if you could go to a big bank in the west and make them divest, it won’t affect them:  making western Banks divest from Russian coal wont solve the problem on its own, as foreign banks don't make up a huge part of the investment. I can see how divestment will work in the west, but not in Russia.

oDR: Researchers have long connected Russia’s form of crony state capitalism and its resource extraction industry. What’s the short- or mid-term future of coal here? 

VS: Coal consumption in Russia is going down, as energy consumption goes down as part of economic downturn. At the same time, the coal industry is producing more coal and stockpiling it. The reason? Because export to the west is growing.

You wouldn’t believe it, but Russian coal industry is breaking records in terms of production, year after year — even in comparison to the Soviet Union. And the proportion of coal in Russia’s energy mix has been dropping. It was 40% a decade ago, now it’s halved. So the only way they can use all this coal is to export it. The western experience of divestment could not work today in Russia, but what could is if countries that buy Russian coal look into the consequences. 

We’ve been trying to communicate through local media to people there that coal isn’t forever — this is the most effective way of communicating the environmental agenda in an already polluted region

When you buy coal, you’re also obtaining a moral right to ask: where does this coal come from? And not just of the coal companies, but the Russian government, too. The latter is responsible because the companies ignore Russian law when it comes to environmental and legal protections — and the government should force them to comply with legislation and if not, then punish them.

In the Kuzbass, we’re going to see huge problems due to Russia’s economic crisis. The local government stated in January 2016 that a lot of people are going to be laid off by the end of the year. Coal demand is dropping in Europe, the market perspective tells us that demand is not likely to jump again in the next decade — the Russian coal industry is going to have to scale down anyway, it’s a matter of time. In some cases this could a very long time, this means for local people a lot of new damage to their health and environment.

oDR: The Russian government might do it themselves — there was recently an official proposal to turn Siberia into a coal-free zone by 2050. How is this downturn going to affect people living in the region?

VS: Local researchers have tried different diversification programmes for the Kuzbass economy for a long time. When Ecodefence was preparing a documentary about the impact of coal mining companies on indigenous populations in the Kuzbass [such as Shors or Teleut], these researchers told us that there was a plan to diversify, but neither the federal, nor local governments were interested. The companies pretty much control the local authorities — coal is the only industry there, and local government is dependent on their money.

Local government should be using these taxes to develop something else. But what they prefer to do is not really take taxes, to make them pay for the damage. Instead, what they do is go to companies and get money in a private way. And due to corruption, companies are not really paying for the damage they do.

The local authorities should be pushing companies to figure out what happens after coal mining stops in the Kuzbass — it employs the majority of people there. The authorities, though, are behaving just like the coal companies — they don’t care.

oDR: It seems like there’s few ways to counter the political monopoly on coal, but clearly raising public awareness is one. What’s your take on the Russian media coverage of the coal industry? 

VS: I just see the same tricks in the Russian media, again and again — basically, pseudo-science stating that climate change doesn’t exist, documentaries featuring scientists saying that climate change happens over millions of years and that we’re not going to be affected by it in Russia.

Ecodefence has been quite active in the Kuzbass, though, distributing information about coal and climate interdependence. But in January this year, the coal industry started a propaganda campaign called “Right for coal”, putting articles in the media and music videos about how people in this region have a special right to use coal, it’s given to them by nature. Residents of the Kuzbass, though, are breathing polluted air, drinking polluted water.

We’ve been trying to communicate through local media to people there that coal isn’t forever — this is the most effective way of communicating the environmental agenda in an already polluted region. It’s important to work at a federal level, sure, but it’s got to start at a local level too.

The Coal Action Network tour with films, discussions and speakers is on now in the UK until 10 June. Check here for more information, dates and details. 

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