Siberia On Fire: Black Carbon In Arctic Russia

Our guest blogger is Benjamin Hale, a philosophy and environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado and an environmental ethics blogger. Dr. Hale is blogging live from Copenhagen.

Fires in RussiaOf the many interesting venues offering side events at the Copenhagen climate negotiations, the events put on by the Bellona Foundation have been the most impressive. You can actually stream and watch some of these events, but’s a noisy little spot, so be warned. I’ll just give you a taste here of what a side event is like. Here’s video from the event on black carbon.

The upshot of the event is that polar and alpine regions are warming rapidly, so watching what’s going on in Russia is important. Moreover, since the arctic makes up one of the largest regions in Russia, watching black carbon is not just extremely important, it’s extremely important to Russia.

Pam Pear of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative and Elena Kobets from the Bellona Foundation noted that rapid reduction in CO2 emissions is vital to slowing arctic warming, but that simply reducing CO2 is not enough. It is prudent also to pay attention to the role of land use. In this case, black carbon (or soot, basically) plays an warming role as well, since when the black carbon lays over white snow, the carbon absorbs more light and thereby exacerbates the melting.

What then causes carbon on the snow? It results from a variety of activities, but mostly from agricultural burning and from forest fires, even though transportation, power, and industry also create this soot effect. Notably, of the forest fires creating black soot, approximately 97% begin from reckless agricultural burning. To make matters worse, underground peat fires caused by above-ground agricultural fires add to the black soot effect by emitting more greenhouse gases.

So what we’re really talking about here is “agricultural burning,” which is a common farming practice in Russia. Indeed, the demographic data illustrates that a heavy portion of black carbon emissions can be attributed to agricultural burning in Russia itself. A smaller number of agricultural fires are started in the US and Canada, though some burning does happen in North America as well.

The team presented several proposals to help remedy this problem. One proposal is to encourage the passage of a domestic Russian law prohibiting, restricting, or at least monitoring agricultural burning. To date, there is no such law. The international community can help by applying pressure.

Secondly, the academic community could become involved in identifying the problem and devising solutions. This could occur at the scientific level, in identifying sources and causes of the problem; but it could also occur at the cultural or sociological level, since agricultural burning is partly an unjustified cultural practice.

Finally, it would help to export agricultural savvy and technology to those agricultural regions of Russia where such burning is taking place. It is a widely held view, apparently, that agricultural burning melts the permafrost and the loosens the soil, thereby making planting easier; but this can be shown in other arctic agricultural environments to be false. Knowledge sharing and capacity building could go a long way.

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