Open Burning and the Arctic: An Issue of Resilience
By Gail Stevenson, Russia Program Manager
Open burning in northern Eurasia is a significant source of black carbon (BC) to the Arctic lower atmosphere and snow surface. The Arctic Council estimates that it is the largest single source of BC impacting the regional Arctic climate. In addition, set agricultural fires often burn out of control, spreading and causing forest and field wild fires that release additional BC and greenhouse gases. Russia and Ukraine are likely the single biggest national contributors of BC reaching the Arctic from open burning — both set fires and accidental fires spread from set fires. Indeed, an ICCI-supported NASA satellite mapping study[i] demonstrated that burning in similar regions of the eastern European Union states is only 10% that of European Russia and Ukraine.
ICCI’s 4-year project with its Russian partner, Bellona, to understand and combat open burning has created a nuanced picture through a combination of farmer surveys and interviews, satellite monitoring, ground-truthing, study tours, legislative reviews, scientific studies and technology assessments. Although farmers always burned to some extent, burning as a widespread phenomenon is a problem of recent origin. As the Russian economy opened up, livestock production declined by 50% during the 1990s and has collapsed further since—by some estimates by as much 90% from Soviet times. Stubble could no longer be used in animal husbandry and manure was no longer a free organic fertilizer. With no other viable options, farmers increasingly burned crop residues and turned to chemical fertilizers, both of which have impacted soil fertility over the decades.
The most progressive farmers are well aware that they cannot increase or even maintain productivity without improving soil biota and structure. There is also growing awareness that burning harms the atmosphere, impacts public health and leads to accidental wildfires. Indeed, several oblasts have enacted bans on open burning, which have had mixed results. In some regions like Rostov it has been fairly effective, in others like Krasnodar, less so. Some areas are so far away from regional centers that they can burn with impunity. Although satellite monitoring is effective, confusion and disagreement reign about which department is in control of on-site monitoring and sanctions. There is also no local or federal system for controlled burning permits for crop residues or other trash and waste. In other regions such as Tula, there has been a huge uptick in agricultural burning this year because of the very dry winter and spring—stubble needs some moisture to decompose in the soil.
New techniques such as no-till farming, minimal tillage that plows the stubble under and disturbs only the upper soil level, and binary planting (cultivating two complementary crops in the same field) are all in use in Russia. However, most of these techniques require equipment that is not produced domestically. Imported equipment is widely available, but the upfront costs are substantial and prohibitive for medium- and small farms. Alternative markets for crop residues such as boilers and heating units, pellets and other processing options are almost unknown in Russia. Finally, people are wedded to the now-traditional path of tossing in a match, and the pressures of a changing climate on agriculture makes many farmers more resistant to change. Yet these new methods can make farming communities more resilient to the changes from global warming that – even with the best mitigation – have already begun to challenge the sector.
ICCI and Bellona Russia continue to address open burning in Russia in all its aspects—by analyzing and promoting legislation (the Rostov legislation was a direct result of ICCI/Bellona efforts); educating farmers, scientists and the general public; working with local and regional officials; and finding ways to support equipment needs. A 50% reduction in the current level of burning would bring European Russia closer to the general level of its EU neighbors, and benefit everyone from local villagers to the Arctic environment.
Read more about the ICCI/Bellona open burning project on our Open Burning page.
[i] On Thin Ice: How Cutting Pollution Can Slow Warming and Save Lives (2013). The World Bank and International Cryosphere Climate Intiative.