Open field and forest burning contributes to regional and global climate change by producing CO2, methane, and – of special interest near cryosphere regions – black carbon (BC), which deposits on nearby snow and ice, speeding melting. By some estimates, these tiny dark particles increase the amount of heat absorbed on such reflective surfaces by 10-15 times. Because the fires inject smoke and black carbon high into the atmosphere, black carbon clouds can travel great distances. To view a simulation of how fire emissions are transported to the Arctic, click the link below and download the animation.
More information about black carbon’s impact on the Arctic:
Open burning is the single largest source of black carbon globally, at 42% dwarfing all other sources (biomass burning for residential cooking and heating makes up 38% of global black carbon emissions, diesel transport 14%) (Bond et al, 2007). While some of this comes from wildfires, even most “wild” fires are ultimately human in origin. Sometimes this occurs by accident – a thrown cigarette, or sparking from transmission wires – but most often, the original fire is set intentionally to field stubble, grassland and savannah, or forest understory.
When such set fires burn out of control, the resulting spread of forest and grassland wildfires release additional BC as well as greenhouse gases including methane, CO, and CO2; damage nearby sensitive ecosystems; and cause loss of human life and infrastructure. Smoke from open burning negatively impacts human health, sometimes quite significantly, as occurred during the Russian fires of summer 2010. Extremes of poor air quality occur annually in New Delhi as farmers rush to transition from rice to wheat in October-November. During one unusually difficult season in 2019, PM2.5 levels in Delhi exceeded 1000. The WHO characterizes anything above 40 as posing a significant health risk, especially to the very young and very old.
At the same time, agricultural burning negatively impacts yields and food security by degrading the soil. Many mistakenly believe that the ash from burning “enriches” the soil, but the opposite is true: burning decreases soil quality by compacting and destroying the humus and organic matter that make agricultural lands productive. This drastically decreases yields, as much as 25-35%, and at a time when agriculture is already under stress from wild seasonal swings of drought and flooding as a result of climate change.
This decrease in fertility leads to ever-greater dependence on expensive fertilizers. Burned soils are brittle soils, prone to erosion by water and wind. The brittle structure and greater fertilizer use leads to greater run-off of nutrients, polluting nearby waterways with both chemical fertilizers and soil particulates, often with oxygen deprivation (eutrophication) a result. In extreme cases, this can lead to massive die-offs of fish and other aquatic species.
At the same time, good alternatives exist to nearly all use of fire in agriculture, especially those that integrate low-till or no-till methods. Conservation agriculture methods, involving direct seeding, preservation of stubble to hold moisture, cover crops and crop rotation; as well as alternative uses for crop stubble such as bio-energy or livestock bedding and feed, all hold special promise as win-win alternatives to burning. Stubble or forest residue can be harvested for bio-fuel or other uses; and methods such as livestock rotation can help manage weeds in pastures, while at the same time enriching soils with manure.
In greenhouse gas terms, burned lands release carbon into the atmosphere, not only from stubble and plant material, but also from the soil itself, which also “burns.” In contrast, lands that are not burned slowly build up more and more carbon, becoming a carbon “sink” that draws CO2 from the atmosphere. Halting burning is therefore a powerful means to both mitigate climate change, and (by making the soil more resilient to drought and flooding) also a key means towards adaptation and greater food security in a changing climate.
ICCI has been one of a handful of organizations to address this issue since its founding in 2010, working first in European Russia (where burning remains highly prevalent) and later with regionally-based programs in the Andes and Himalayas. Since 2017, ICCI has also lead hands-on demonstration projects in Huancayo, Peru and Punjab, India. ICCI has also conducted mapping of fires and training in alternative methods in Ukraine and Nigeria, and conducted the first Africa-wide mapping of open burning, presenting the results at the UNEA meeting in 2019. In 2021, ICCI began a mapping program in Ecuador in concert with the U.S. Forest Service and Tierra Sin Fuego, which we hope will lead to a wide range of demonstration projects there applicable to the entire Andean region.
On an international scale, ICCI developed a Guidance Document on open burning under the Convention on Long-Range Trans-boundary Pollution (CLRTAP), which was adopted by the Convention in late 2020. ICCI has created a separate website on the issue of open burning (including extensive regional and national mapping of fires), at www.openburning.org.
ICCI has been working with partner organizations in Russia since 2009 to explore alternatives to agricultural burning, which releases black carbon, one of the short-lived climate forcers, into the atmosphere. Because of the prevailing winds, black carbon from European Russia falls on Arctic sea ice and glaciers, where it contributes to the excessive melting we have seen in recent years.
With the support of the Swedish Ministry of the Environment, ICCI worked with Bellona/ Russia in Saint Petersburg and the Agricultural Research Institute of Sweden to organize a conference on alternatives to agricultural burning in March of 2012. Read the conference report here. The second phase recruited interested farmers from Rostov and Leningrad oblasts for a study tour to Sweden in February, 2013. Participants included 3 farmers from each of the two oblasts, 2 scientists from Russian research institutes, the Swedish Agricultural Agency, as well as local Bellona/ICCI field and national staff and ICCI representatives. Read about the study tour and participants’ comments here. This second phase also included production of off-the-shelf study materials for farmers in Russian and English (link coming soon) and on the procurement process for needed alternative agricultural equipment. Read the procurement report here.
With additional support from the Swedish Ministry of the Environment and the Nordic Environment Finance Corporation (NEFCO) , the project has built pilot programs in three oblasts—Leningradskaya, Krasnodarskiy Krai and Rostovskaya– in northern/central European Russia that will develop and demonstrate viable and appropriate alternatives to agricultural burning. The project showcases up to three demonstration projects in each oblast, conduct local and national-level courses and materials on alternatives and will also work to develop micro-financing to aid farmers in the transition. A second study tour took place in November of 2013 and the first Field Day in Rostov with joint Russian-Swedish participation in May of 2014, followed by a Krasnodar Field Day in October. Tula oblast, which experienced a sharp uptick in open burning in spring 2014 due to the very dry previous winter, was added in 2014 and farmers from that oblast traveled on a third study tour in December 2014. A Tula Field Day was held in February, 2015.
If you want to learn more, here are some great articles about the project’s many aspects:
“Burning the High Arctic: 2020 Spring and Summer Fire Season in Sakha Republic: a precursor of fire seasons to come?” by Braden D. Pohl, Jessica L. McCarty, Justin J. Fain (July 2020)
“Everything is Seen from Above—in the Kuban Satellites are Used to Fight Fires“ on satellite monitoring of open burning in Krasnodar (March 2014)
“Collateral Profit–How to Make Straw Work for You, Not Against the Harvest“ from Krestianin No. 22 about Rostov oblast (May 2014)
“The Main Thing is to Change Farmers’ Thinking About Innovation —to Break Stereotypes“ from a radio interview with Rostov farmers in Delovoi Mius (May 2014)
“Firesetters Who Destroy Protected Forests In Krasnodar Escape Responsibility“ about summer fires on or near protected lands on the Black Sea Coast (August 2014)
“Increased Agricultural Burning in Tula Oblast Spring 2014—Notes on Methodology and Causes”, –how satellite mapping is done and margins of error determined with specific reference to the marked increase in burning in Tula in 2014 from our experts at the Dokuchaev Soil Institute, Moscow (December 2014)
“Agricultural Fires Ruin Emissions Data” – about fire data in the Kuban (December 2014)
Although farmers in European Russia always burned crop waste to some extent, the problem as a widespread phenomenon is 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.
Not all farmers burn however, and not under all conditions; and many are aware of the damaging consequences for the soil, health, the local environment and beyond. The tradition of burning continues in spite of federal-level (and some regional-level) prohibitions and sanctions. Read about the state of federal and oblast legislation here.
UPDATE: On November 10, 2015, a new federal law banning grassland burning on agricultural lands was put in place (http://government.ru/docs/20511/). This means that the 2016 agricultural season is particularly important to provide farmers with the alternatives and resources needed in order to avoid this practice.
While burning carries some near-term benefits, such as removing stubble for easier plowing or revitalizing grasslands, over time the practice results in a net loss of soil nutrients, necessitating greater use of expensive fertilizers. More seriously, over time it also results in poor quality, low humus soil structures that further lower crop yields, and these degraded soil structures are extremely difficult to improve. In addition to other economic factors, this poor quality soil may be driving an appreciable trend towards abandoning formerly productive farmlands throughout the region, making domestic food production in Russia more difficult to achieve.
The project also includes an information campaign among farmers as well as the public at large about the dangers of uncontrolled burning on the environment, health and safety.
Patterns of Burning
As part of the underlying data-collection process, Bellona Russia conducted a survey in 2011 of approximately 800 farmers in the Northwest, Central, Southern and Ural federal districts. 92 survey responses from farms of a range of sizes, most of which grow primarily grain or feed, were received and were supplemented by a few in-person interviews.
In general, burning is concentrated in the spring (peaking in April) and in the late summer/fall (July – September), the latter being much more extensive. The study concentrated on European Russia as distinct from other climate regions, i.e., Siberia. Agricultural burning is more prevalent in the most favorable agricultural regions – the Central and Southern districts — and on small-scale farms.
The survey also explored reasons for burning. Many farmers burn in spite of sanctions but would only acknowledge that reality over the course of the interview conversations. Financial problems and lack of modern equipment represent major challenges for farmers and burning of agricultural residue is primarily an adaptive response to these. Tradition, vandalism and carelessness about the environment by non-farmers, tourists and others were also factors.
Farmers are interested in learning about and potentially implementing alternative methods of agricultural waste management. Approximately half knew about the impact of burning on the Arctic climate and a third were aware of alternative waste recycling systems in operation in Europe and the USA. Respondents viewed information and advocacy work as potentially significant. The majority of farmers was interested in receiving information about modern methods of agricultural waste management and cleaning fields for planting.