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2022 Air quality average
2022 average US AQI
2022 average PM2.5 concentration in Russia: 2.2 times the WHO annual air quality guideline value
|2022 Russia cleanest city
| Vladivostok , Primorskiy
|2022 Russia most polluted city
| Krasnoyarsk , Krasnoyarsk Krai
The Russian Federation is the full, official name for Russia. It is a transcontinental country stretching from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Baltic Sea in the west. The total land area covered by Russia is a whopping 17,125,200 square kilometres. It stretches across 11 time zones and borders 16 other countries. In December 2020, the population was estimated to be approximately 150 million people.
Russia is currently experiencing “Good” air quality with a US AQI figure of 41 according to recommended levels by the World Health Organisation (WHO). However, in the 2019 world ranking, Russia was placed at 81 out of a total of 98 dirtiest countries.
In 2019, Russia’s capital city of Moscow attained the target set by the WHO for clean air. For a total of 7 months of the year, a figure of 10 µg/m³ was recorded. The months of January and May returned “Good” readings of between 10 and 12 µg/m³. For the remaining three months, the figure was “Moderate” with totals between 12.1 and 35.4 µg/m³. Looking at the historic figures, 2017 saw an annual average of 8.4 µg/m³ and 2018 returned a figure of 10.1 µg/m³.
Air quality is a big issue here, says an environmental expert from Krasnoyarsk, Siberia’s third-largest city. What the locals know as “black sky mode” is often experienced when industrial plants are recommended to reduce their emissions’ levels because of bad weather conditions. Every public discussion of our general environmental situation includes the problem of atmospheric pollution.
The Russian public is mostly unaware of the perturbing statistics collected by both scientific experts and government bodies. As few as one-fifth of regions in Russia have their own pollution monitoring systems, and even then, half of their checks on air quality are not carried out to a high enough standard. This means it is virtually impossible to obtain statistically sound data from them.
There is an environmental “Watchdog” (Roshydromet) which controls 600 observation posts in 225 towns and cities but this service is not free which means around 80 per cent of the regions would have to pay to use it. Needless to say, most do not! This ultimately means that the general public has no idea as to the quality of the air they are breathing on a daily basis. In the regions where data is released to the general public, it is far from accurate because an average for a given area over a given period of time, with no account taken of individual locations and times, is used.
Local authorities are very often criticised for placing the monitors in relatively “clean” areas such as in parks or near the riverbanks or on the edge of town where the data collected is not a true representation of actuality.
More than 80 per cent of Russia’s air pollution comes from vehicle emissions, especially in European Russia such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. But these cities are not the most polluted in Russia. That accolade goes to those cities which are found in Siberia and the Urals. In these areas, the main source of pollution is from, industry. This is where the country’s mining, chemical and heavy industries are concentrated.
According to a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Environmental Research Council, about 14 per cent of the Russian landmass is classified as being of environmental concern, with 67 million people living close to the limit of permissible levels of atmospheric pollution; 27 million are at five times the limit and 12 million are at 10 times the limit. In Moscow alone air pollution accounts for 5,000 extra deaths a year, which equates to twice as many as the number of road deaths.
Some attempts are being made to improve not only the gathering of the data but also industrial practices. The city of Dzershinsk which is 250 miles east of Moscow, has been a major centre of the chemical industry since the Soviet era and often featured in the list of dirtiest cities in the world. But in 2014 it eventually dropped out of the Environmental Ministry’s ‘Thirty Most Polluted Cities’ chart due to changes within their working practices.
In Moscow, air pollution accounts for approximately 5,000 deaths a year. The local authority believes the improved figures are due to a combination of increased attention to environmental safety in industrial plants and improved environmental monitoring while excluding the existing increasing environmental damage from the data.
Residents in the city of Vladikavkaz have to pay an outside organisation to monitor their air quality as there are no other measurements available. Various other districts in the city are incompletely monitored. This means that average annual indicators show acceptable emission levels, although some measurements indicate higher than permitted levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and nitrogen oxide (NO). One of the more perturbing observations is that experts accuse Elektrozink of releasing toxic substances into the atmosphere during the night. Residents voice their concern that the figures held by the company are not made available for general knowledge. There is no monitoring conducted overnight and there is no system for warning residents about possible hazardous discharges, so all they have to go on are their own observations.
Residents are often very 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. These large companies are becoming almost omnipotent.
In Moscow, vehicles that do not meet the Euro-3 emissions standard have been banned from the city centre for several years. In order to encourage the use of electric vehicles, the city has installed almost 80 electric vehicle charging stations, with a similar number planned for installation in the coming years. This is the way forward for non-polluting personal modes of transport.
St. Petersburg is investing in an electrified public transportation system which will include trams and buses. They will also cap the number of heavy-duty freight trucks allowed in the city. A cycle hire scheme has been successfully introduced and almost 40km of cycle paths in the city have been designated with plans to increase this in the near future.
The US-based NGO Pure Earth and the International Green Cross list the Siberian city of Norilsk in their top ten table of the worst polluted areas in the world. They also classify it 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. The company has modernised its facilities over the past decade (it announced the closure of its oldest nickel processing plant in 2014), but the level of atmospheric pollution is still ten times higher than the Russian average and 25 times higher than in Moscow. This is a prime example of residents being unwilling to criticise the company where most of them work. Over the years that Norilsk Nickel has been there, the city and its inhabitants have been absorbed into the company, so it’s difficult to talk about serious protests.
Because of this, most comments are anonymously published online. Everybody knows that the plant is slowly poisoning Norilsk. The gas has killed off all the local forest, and the plants which were growing on the tundra around the industrial zone have all died off. People don’t even want to think about their health; they just ignore the toxic cloud hanging over the city. They almost have come to accept the fact and think it’s a nuisance but it’s not fatal.
It is reported that if you step outside on any day, there is a 40 per cent chance that you will taste sulphur dioxide or other noxious gases. One resident went on to say that even when doors and windows are opened at home, the smells drift inside.
Over the last decade, the local authorities have been looking at Russia’s environmental protection legislation, amending old laws and passing new ones. Among them is a law passed in 2014 which was designed to stimulate the adoption of the best available technologies (BAT), including those relating to clean air.
By 2017, the Ministry planned to have monitoring devices installed at all large industrial installations, with the data collected made available not only to government bodies but to the public as well. This monitoring should in theory put an end to unlawful emissions such as overnight discharges, whose sources can be difficult to establish. This is a regular occurrence even in Moscow.
Most environmental specialists are fairly positive about the reforms on air quality; their main requirements are about their putting into practice 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 ignore obvious breaches, or the company might simply bribe or choose to pay the relatively insignificant fines. Another important factor is the need to take air quality into account during planning discussions which is something few cities do now.
Whilst traffic in cities has been a controversial issue in the West for several years, it is seen as a new and growing health problem in Russia. The concentration of small airborne particles from petrol and diesel engines cause around 40,000 premature deaths in Russia every year and are a particular risk to people living near major roads.
Novosibirsk is a city where there is a direct correlation between air quality and death rates. ‘The more polluted the air, the higher the rate. Research shows that on average, 300 additional cars give one extra death every three months. At the same time, Russian cities still lack a majority of citizens whose strong ‘green’ views could stand up against the well-organised motorists’ organisations, which is usually the victor when it comes to planning arguments on things such as parking facilities and the pedestrianisation of city centres.
When it comes to car ownership, Russia thinks differently to that of the European mindset. For many Russians, car ownership is a status symbol and the market is still far from saturation point. Another unusual factor to be taken into consideration is that a lot of Muscovites live in cramped rented flats on the outskirts of the city and work eight to ten hour days in their offices in the city centre. They choose to “escape” reality for two to four hours daily. They choose to stay in their cars and cruise around the city suburbs where it’s comfy and they listen to their favourite music and enjoy their own space. This is a luxury that they don’t get anywhere else.
Planning specialists believe that the only way to change these habits is to develop comfortable, fast and convenient public transport. The famous Moscow Metro is already overstretched and overcrowded and is therefore not the first choice as a mode of daily transportation. In contrast to the city authorities, who still tend to think that the solution is to build more roads, it is argued that 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, will discourage personal use of vehicles within the city centres. Many planning specialists support the restrictions on cars in cities whilst environmentalists are petitioning for more pedestrian areas and cycle routes. Indeed, they have already been successful in some cities. Most experts still think that it will take a long time to change the “mindset” of people who enjoy using their personal mode of transport.
As older diesel-fuelled buses become old and obsolete they are being replaced by electric eco-friendly vehicles.
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