Economy

How Mega Polluters Make Moscow Stink

In Russia's capital, environmental protection is victim of manufacturers who don't want to reform and a government that won't challenge them. The result is there for all to see...and smell.

Moscow's St. Basil cathedral surrounded by incinerator smoke.
Moscow's St. Basil cathedral surrounded by incinerator smoke.
Vera Sitnina

MOSCOW — The Russian constitution actually guarantees the right to clean air. But as with other constitutional rights, exercising and protecting them isn't always simple.

According to data from the Ministry of Emergency Situations, more than two million Muscovites complained about a sulfurous smell Nov. 10. Some Russian cities have perennially unpleasant smells and no one complains, but that's not the case in Moscow. The smell of rotten eggs prompted widespread concern, but it seems that the government has yet to investigate the matter. Or if it has, it hasn't said so.

The incident highlights the significant failings of environmental protectionism in Russia, where legislation is behind the times and polluters go not only unchecked but also unmeasured.

In the case of last month's incident, it's not clear who's responsible for telling citizens what happened and why, so no one knows what, if any, measures have been taken to ensure it doesn't happen again. In Moscow, there are four different agencies responsible for environmental protection, and an additional city agency handles air quality. Each plays a different role in preventing and responding to instances of unacceptably high emissions.

Lack of coordination between the different agencies was painfully clear in November. Some said the smell was dangerous, while others said it was harmless.

"We have a lot of possible scenarios," Moscow’s Environmental Department chief said then. "Right now we're working with all the regions, trying to clear up the reasons for the malfunction. We should have answers by the end of the day."

Polluters running roughshod

It's been a month, and the only answer has been a lawsuit filed against the owners of the Moscow Refinery, charging them with air pollution. But experts are skeptical about the suit's chances because it's almost impossible to prove that the pollution emanated from the refinery, which doesn't have an emissions tracking system.

According to Environmental Resources Minister Sergei Donskoi, there are 87 major air polluters in Moscow, and of those only 57 have a system to continuously monitor their own emissions. "In addition, the largest polluter, the Moscow Refinery, is in no rush to install such a system," Donskoi says. Strangely, the oil refinery has the right to avoid self-tracking, at least for now. By law, polluters have until January 2018 to install an automatic, continuous emissions control system.

"Our biggest problem isn't that the law is bad but that there is no requirement that people actually obey the law," explains Aleksander Solovyanov, director of the Institute for Environmental and Ecological Economics and Policy at the School of Higher Economics. "Auditors have shown that the number of violators is growing every year, but no one has specific data. When we don't even know the size of the problem, it's impossible to find an appropriate solution."

Environmental protection has become the victim, caught between manufacturers who don't want to spend money on it and the government, which is not prepared to control the situation. "The Environmental Ministry is like a fox in the henhouse," says Ivan Blokov, director of Greenpeace Russia. "The agency has two diametrically opposed goals: achieving maximal economic benefit from natural resources, and protecting the environment. Aside from Russia, the only two other countries in the world where one agency has those two goals are Zimbabwe and Honduras."

Smoggy skies at Gazprom headquarters — Photo: aalien

Environmentalists say the government isn't interested in giving equal weight to the interests of manufacturers and the country's environmental needs. "We're not even going back to the 20th century," says Evgenii Schwatz, director of environmental policy at the World Wildlife Fund. "We're back in the 19th century, when environmental destruction was considered an essential part of technical progress. It's cheaper for everyone to break environmental rules than it is to observe them. The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs estimates that large businesses spend 2.5 billion euros per year on "unofficial" means of meeting environmental rules. As long as corruption in the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage continues, it's cheaper to pay a bribe than to update to better technology."

See no evil, hear no evil

He says the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs is not really interested in fighting corruption because that would require releasing pollution data to the public. "If that were to happen, the Union says that companies that have stocks traded on Western stock markets would see their stock prices drop. In reality, that means those companies didn't tell investors the truth during the IPO."

But Western experience has shown that improving environmental protections doesn't have to be expensive. "In most cases, Russian companies would need to make a large investment in modernization to achieve a real decrease in negative environmental impact," explains Maksim Komel, head of DuPont's "Responsible Business" department. "But international experience has also shown successful examples of businesses that have reached ambitious environmental goals through continual improvement, which means constant investment in small projects that pay off quickly."

Local government officials are likewise uninterested in environmental protection. "Unfortunately, governors are actually better off when there is more pollution in their region," Schwartz explains. "They will get more money to fix the pollution issue, but they can use that money for whatever they want."

As a result, since the times of Chernobyl the government has operated the same way: First, it tries to hide information about the disaster, then it forgets that it ever happened.

"The biggest problem is the lack of information," Blokov explains. "According to the Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring Agency, the situation has never been better. The Russian Statistics Service reports a favorable dynamic, based on the business industry's own reporting. But all of the information on individual company emissions are confidential. I personally lost a suit against the Moscow Refinery, where I was trying to get them to release emissions information."

Solovyanov says the the government is currently losing the fight with business. "Individual companies sometimes take steps, but in general business is in opposition," he says. "The government lacks the political will to stand up to them. Delaying resolution of environmental problems is not a wise position, because as the problems pile up it is never possible to resolve all of them."

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Spencer Tunick Nude Installation in Israel

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Salam!*

Welcome to Monday, where the UK pays homage to slain MP David Amess, Myanmar frees thousands of prisoners, and Facebook gets ready to build its "metaverse." Please fasten your seatbelts: Worldcrunch also takes stock of the long-lasting effects — good and bad — the pandemic has had on the air travel industry.

[*Azeri - Azerbaijan]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Myanmar to free political prisoners: Myanmar's junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has announced the release of 5,636 prisoners who had been jailed for protesting the coup that ousted the civilian government in February 2021.

• Powerful Haiti gang behind the kidnapping of U.S. missionaries: The notorious 400 Mawozo gang is believed to be behind the kidnapping in Haiti of a group of Christian missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens and one Canadian. The brazen kidnapping on Saturday comes as crime is spiking since the killing of President Jovenel Moise in July.

• UK to pay tribute to David Amess: British lawmakers will pay homage in parliament to colleague David Amess, who was stabbed to death Friday in what was described by the police as a "terrorist incident." Officers arrested a 25-year-old suspect whose father, Harbi Ali Kullane, worked as a media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia.

• COVID update: Russia has registered more than 34,000 cases of new infections in the past 24 hours, a new record since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, police in the northeast Italian city of Trieste used water cannons to clear striking dockworkers protesting Italy's new requirements that all employees be vaccinated.

• At least 26 killed in floods in India: Torrential rain has triggered floods and landslides in India's southern coastal state of Kerala, killing at least 26 people.

• Facebook to hire 10,000 in EU to develop "metaverse": The U.S. social media giant plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to build a "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet that the company touts as the future.

Punishing parents for children's bad behavior: After limiting gaming hours for minors, China is now considering legislation to reprimand parents if their children exhibit "very bad behavior" or commit crimes.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Colombian daily El Espectador dedicates its front page to Alex Saab, "owner of the secrets" of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The Colombian businessman, wanted by U.S. authorities for allegedly laundering money on behalf of Venezuela's government, has been extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. where he is scheduled to appear in court today.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

4.9%

China's economy registered its slowest pace in a year as the country faces a looming energy crisis with power shortages and increasing pressure on its property sector. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the period between July-September rose 4.9%, the weakest numbers since the third quarter of 2020 and significantly lower than forecasts. The world's second-largest economy faces a debt crisis linked to the China Evergrande Group debt crisis, while energy shortfalls have dropped factory output to its weakest since early 2020, when heavy COVID-19 curbs were in place.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

7 ways the pandemic may change the airline industry for good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

⛽ Cleaner aviation fuel: With air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel. In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials

.🛃 Smoother check-in: The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

✈️ The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less? At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel, in particular, is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"The crimes committed that night are unforgivable for the Republic."

— Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to commemorate the killing of as many as 200 Algerian independence protesters by Parisian police in 1961. For 40 years, French officials ignored the massacre, which took place a year before Algeria gained its independence from France after an eight-year war. In 2012, French President François Hollande acknowledged the killings for the first time on a visit to Algeria, and Macron took it further by attending Sunday's commemoration at the site where the events happened in the French capital. Still, many had hoped the French President would go further and take responsibility for a "state massacre," for a crime many historians consider the most violent repression of a peaceful demonstration in post-War Europe.

📈💥  IN OTHER NEWS

​Low trust, high risk: The global rise of violence targeting politicians

The deadly stabbing of British Parliament Member David Amess confirms an ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad. In The Conversation, James Weinberg — the study's author and a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield — writes:

⏪ The assassination of Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on Friday, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councilor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

☝️ Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

🇬🇧🇳🇿🇿🇦 Not only are these experiences of abuse or threats of physical violence felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK — they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile, from New Zealand to South Africa.


Read the full piece from The Conversation, now on Worldcrunch.com

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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