Forest Fires Threaten Siberia During A Dry And Hot Summer - Again

Russian fires rage on
Russian fires rage on
Kiril Zhurenkov and Vita Spivak

MOSCOW - They say that the most expensive lunch enjoyed by anyone in the world was when the head of Greenlight Capital, David Einhorn, spent ‘only’ $250,100 for the right to dine with Warren Buffet, who he had always admired.

Nikolai Taishikhin, who lives in a small town on Russia’ border with Mongolia, didn’t quite reach that record. But the bill for his picnic in the forest added up to around $107,784, including the court-ordered damages that he has to pay. You see, Nikolai didn’t extinguish his campfire after eating, and it sparked a major forest fire.

That little story wouldn’t be much more than a bit of trivia if it weren’t for the critical situation with forest fires in Russia this year. Specialists are blaming the dry winter and the very hot summer, but their report doesn’t overlook the impact of everyday people’s actions.

This year’s forest fires come only two years after widespread fires killed more than two dozen people and destroyed whole villages in July 2010, Russia’s hottest month on record since record-keeping began. The unusually hot weather in Russia comes on the heels of the hottest month on record in the United States.

According to a recently published scientific paper, scientists are nearly certain that the Russian heat wave of 2010 would not have happened if not for global warming. Now, only two years later, it’s hot again and fires threaten huge swaths of central Russia.

According to numbers from the Federal Forestry Agency, about 21,376 hectares of forest are burning around Russia, in a total of 176 separate fires. There are fires throughout several regions of Siberia. The southern part of the country has been put on alert, with fire danger extremely high, including Krasnodar Krai, which is still recovering from recent floods in the Crimea.

According to data quoted by Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev at a press conference, the situation is extreme in 11 regions of the country, with hot weather forecasted well into August.

Moscow is safe… for now

There is only one piece of good news: No one is predicting unusual or extreme conditions in the European part of Russia, unlike in 2010, when the Moscow region was particularly hard hit.

“In the area around Moscow we started fire-protection measures as early as May,” the deputy leader of the National Volunteer Firefighters Society Vladimir Ermilov. “We’ve bought all the appropriate tools, strengthened our fire awareness campaigns and continued watering the peat bog. Of course, if the whole month of August turns out to be dry and hot, then it’s impossible to guarantee anything.”

In any case, it is not only the government that is preparing, but also volunteers. “I decided to spend half the day today on fire prevention preparations in Kolionovo,” writes Mikhail Shlyapnikov on his blog. Shlyapnikov is a farmer who distinguished himself as a volunteer firefighter during the Siberian forest fires two years ago. “We still have to plow a fire-prevention strip around the town, put the nozzles on the hydrants, prepare the old people and give them barrels of water and paint the warning bells...”

But even if the central region of Russia is reasonably prepared for fires, the hot weather in Siberia arrived unexpectedly. Still, there should have been better preparation. In 2010 both experts and locals discovered a long list of problems: the closure of forestry stations, drying in the peat bogs, the lack of a developed volunteer firefighter system, lax laws on fire violations and even government workers who purposely downplayed the scale of the disaster.

Nevertheless, some lessons were learned and policy taken in the wake of the 2010 fires. For example, there have been changes in the laws: before, almost anyone could submit a bid for firefighting work, even fly-by-night companies that had no experience in the profession. Now companies that submit bids must meet strict requirements regarding firefighting preparation.

In general, the problem with drying peat bogs is being confronted (according to various sources, around one-third of the peat bogs in the region around Moscow are watered), and a National Forest Protection Service has been added to the Forestry code.

Unfortunately, this last change has happened only on paper: as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) experts have noted, there have been neither additional resources nor additional staff added to existing Forestry centers. And the creation of a volunteer network is moving slowly.

Of course, the civil servants who hide the true proportions of fires have, unfortunately, not gone anywhere.

According to Greenpeace’s Alexei Yaroshenko, one reason for large-scale fires getting out of control is the local officials who believe that it is better to conceal a fire with the hopes that it will be extinguished by rain than to report to higher state authorities and admit that you cannot handle the problem yourself.

This year, according to data from Greenpeace, the Amur Oblast in the Russia Far East has really distinguished itself. Greenpeace specialists say that the government workers there have been reporting the scope of the fires about 100 times smaller than they are in reality. And in another region, the prosecutor has already opened disciplinary proceedings against the region’s Minister of Natural Resources for failing to provide complete data on the developing situation.

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How China Flipped From Tech Copycat To Tech Leader

Long perceived as a country chasing Western tech, China's business and technological innovations are now influencing the rest of the world. Still lagging on some fronts, the future is now up for grabs.

At the World Semiconductor Conference in Nanjing, China, on June 9

Emmanuel Grasland

BEIJING — China's tech tycoons have fallen out of favor: Jack Ma (Alibaba), Colin Huang (Pinduoduo), Richard Liu (Tencent) and Zhang Yiming (ByteDance) have all been pressured by Beijing to leave their jobs or step back from a public role. Their time may be coming to an end, but the legacy remains exceptional. Under their reign, China has become a veritable window to the global future of technology.

TikTok is the perfect example. Launched in 2016, the video messaging app has been downloaded over two billion times worldwide. It has passed the 100-million active user mark in the United States. Thanks to TikTok's success, ByteDance, its parent company, has reached an exceptional level of influence on the internet.

For a long time, the West viewed China's digital ecosystem as a cheap imitation of Silicon Valley. The European and American media described the giants of the Asian superpower as the "Chinese Google" or "Chinese Amazon." But the tables have turned.

No Western equivalent to WeChat

The Asian superpower has forged cutting-edge business models that do not exist elsewhere. It is impossible to find a Western equivalent to the WeChat super-app (1.2 billion users), which is used for shopping as much as for making a medical appointment or obtaining credit.

The flow of innovation is now changing direction.

The roles have actually reversed: In a recent article, Les Echos describes the California-based social network IRL, as a "WeChat of the Western world."

Grégory Boutté, digital and customer relations director at the multinational luxury group Kering, explains, "The Chinese digital ecosystem is incredibly different, and its speed of evolution is impressive. Above all, the flow of innovation is now changing direction."

This is illustrated by the recent creation of "live shopping" events in France, which are hosted by celebrities and taken from a concept already popular in China.

10,000 new startups per day

There is an explosion of this phenomenon in the digital sphere. Rachel Daydou, Partner & China General Manager of the consulting firm Fabernovel in Shanghai, says, "With Libra, Facebook is trying to create a financial entity based on social media, just as WeChat did with WeChat Pay. Facebook Shop looks suspiciously like WeChat's mini-programs. Amazon Live is inspired by Taobao Live and YouTube Shopping by Douyin, the Chinese equivalent of TikTok."

In China, it is possible to go to fully robotized restaurants or to give a panhandler some change via mobile payment. Your wallet is destined to be obsolete because your phone can read restaurant menus and pay for your meal via a QR Code.

The country uses shared mobile chargers the way Europeans use bicycles, and is already testing electric car battery swap stations to avoid 30 minutes of recharging time.

Michael David, chief omnichannel director at LVMH, says, "The Chinese ecosystem is permanently bubbling with innovation. About 10,000 start-ups are created every day in the country."

China is also the most advanced country in the electric car market. With 370 models at the end of 2020, it had an offering that was almost twice as large as Europe's, according to the International Energy Agency.

Photo of a phone's screen displaying the logo of \u200bChina's super-app WeChat

China's super-app WeChat

Omar Marques/SOPA Images/ZUMA

The whole market runs on tech

Luca de Meo, CEO of French automaker Renault, said in June that China is "ahead of Europe in many areas, whether it's electric cars, connectivity or autonomous driving. You have to be there to know what's going on."

As a market, China is also a source of technological inspiration for Western companies, a world leader in e-commerce, solar, mobile payments, digital currency and facial recognition. It has the largest 5G network, with more than one million antennas up and running, compared to 400,000 in Europe.

Self-driving cars offer an interesting point of divergence between China and the West.

Just take the number of connected devices (1.1 billion), the time spent on mobile (six hours per day) and, above all, the magnitude of data collected to deploy and improve artificial intelligence algorithms faster than in Europe or the United States.

The groundbreaking field of self-driving cars offers an interesting point of divergence between China and the West. Artificial intelligence guru Kai-Fu Lee explains that China believes that we should teach the highway to speak to the car, imagining new services and rethinking cities to avoid cars crossing pedestrians, while the West does not intend to go that far.

Still lagging in some key sectors

There are areas where China is still struggling, such as semiconductors. Despite a production increase of nearly 50% per year, the country produces less than 40% of the chips it consumes, according to official data. This dependence threatens its ambitions in artificial intelligence, telecoms and autonomous vehicles. Chinese manufacturers work with an engraving fineness of 28 nm or more, far from those of Intel, Samsung or TSMC. They are unable to produce processors for high-performance PCs.

China's aerospace industry is also lagging behind the West. There are also no Chinese players among the top 20 life science companies on the stock market and there are doubts surrounding the efficacy of Sinovac and Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccines. As of 2019, the country files more patents per year than the U.S., but far fewer are converted into marketable products.

Beijing knows its weaknesses and is working to eliminate them. Adopted in March, the nation's 14th five-year plan calls for a 7% annual increase in R&D spending between now and 2025, compared with 12% under the previous plan. Big data aside, that is basic math anyone can understand.

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