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Why Siberia is so reluctant to beat its addiction to coal

Colourful apartment buildings with Coal power plant, Anadyr, Chukotka Siberia, Russia
A coal power plant in the port town of Anadyr, in the Chukotka region of Siberia Credit: Alamy 

Climate change? ‘We will still be producing coal 30 years from now,’ defiant coal company chief says. ‘Kiss my a--’

The Arctic snow that fell on Siberia in February didn’t coat the region’s cities in a thick, beautiful blanket of white powder as it usually does. Instead, residents awoke to find their neighbourhoods coated in a noxious dark substance that looked like mounds of volcanic ash.

Streets, cars and schools in Kiselyovsk, a town deep in the Russian coal-mining heartland of Kuzbass, were actually shrouded in black snow.

As far as the eye could see, the city – punctuated by smokestacks that belched black smoke – was covered in a toxic sludge, in a bleak scene that locals described as “post-apocalyptic”.

An accident at one of the region’s coal-fired power plants was to blame, according to the local authorities.

Activists have said that because of these mines, child cerebral palsy and cancer are both above the national average in Kuzbass, while the normal life expectancy is three to four years lower than Russia’s average.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned the world earlier this month to quit its “addiction” to coal, saying the fuel was undermining climate-change targets, even as the planet’s rising temperature threatened “the viability of human societies”.

But in a region of 36 million people that covers more than 9pc of the Earth’s entire land surface and routinely drops below -60C, calls by the international community to do away with coal for environmental reasons clash with reality: for many in Siberia, the black substance is the only thing that can keep them alive through the long, dark winters.

This dilemma is exacerbated by the millions of people who depend on the coal industry to make a living.

The town of Kiselyovsk, which was coated in ‘post-apocoalyptic’ black snow in February this year Credit:  AFP

There is no escaping the facts, however. When burned, coal releases more carbon dioxide than oil or gas, according to Greenpeace. In Siberia, companies and residents are defiant, asking how they are supposed to quit coal when so many lives depend on it.

None are more resistant to calls for change than the secretive Siberian Coal Energy Company, known as Suek, one of the world’s largest coal companies.

“We will still be producing coal 30 years from now,” said Sergei Grigoriev, a senior director at Suek, in one of the company’s first interviews in several years. Flashing his middle fingers, Mr Grigoriev told so-called “climate extremists” to “kiss my a--”.

According to the senior executive, climate targets imposed largely by the West fail to take into account the reality on the ground. While Mr Grigoriev acknowledged that environmental concerns around carbon emissions were valid, he said “economic and social developments must come first”.

Suek, the largest producer of thermal coal in Russia, operates 27 coal mines and 24 coal-fired power stations across the country. It has about 5.2 billion tonnes of coal reserves and supplies coal to more than 48 countries.

Pointing to the 49 company towns that Suek maintains around its factories and mines, Mr Grigoriev said there were about 180,000 workers who needed to be taken care of, with another 400,000 supply chain workers delivering coal to Russia’s remote coastal ports. With their families, he said more than 2m people directly depend on the coal industry.

“In Russia, we understand one thing: all the cataclysmic changes in our history usually began with miners coming and banging helmets,” he said. “So, excuse me, but what do you guys expect us to do? You want us to inflict a major crisis on this country?”

Referring to teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, Mr Grigoriev said: “We can all sit down and put the picture of this Swedish kid up and say ‘how lovely’, but all our people are unemployed now.”

Russians are sensitive to talk of revolutions and political instability.

Over the last century, the country has grappled with discontent from industrial workers: it was miners in 1917 who helped spark an armed insurrection that became the October Revolution; and it was miners – protesting over a lack of soap with which to clean their hands – in 1989 who helped to accelerate reforms that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Indra Overland, head of the energy programme at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, said: “Anywhere that has a big coal industry, of course this is an important side of it. Just think of Thatcher in the 1980s.”

But in Russia, Mr Overland said, this topic was much more sensitive.

“The population and the elite don’t want political instability,” he saidt. “Maybe the most important political aim in Russia is to avoid political instability, because they have had a bad experience of that. That could make it very difficult to challenge coal.”

Regardless of the risks, Russian environmental activists have said the country cannot continue to afford to ignore the issue. “[We] oppose coal mining and its use in Russia because it is a threat to climate, public health and human rights,” said Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of environmental rights group Ecodefense.

The founder of Ecodefense, Alexandra Korolyova, was forced to seek asylum in Germany this year after the activism group was formally labelled a “foreign agent” and she was threatened with a prison sentence for her work.

Arguing that Russia needn’t rely on coal, Mr Slivyak said: “It is possible to provide people in Siberia with other sources of energy. It is a matter of political will.”

However, shifting attitudes around fossil fuels globally appear to already be impacting Suek’s bottom line. This year, it struggled to refinance a $1.5bn (£1.16bn) loan as lenders declined to get into bed with a coal miner.

Attempts to introduce renewable energy in regions such as Siberia have proved difficult: the technology remains costly compared to coal, legacy infrastructure is troublesome to replace or upgrade and the schemes often lack crucial government backing.

“Russia is quite schizophrenic about climate change. Some days they are climate sceptic, and some days they claim to be a leader in cutting carbon emissions,” Mr Overland said.

But as Siberia enters another long winter with just a few hours of sunlight each day, residents have already begun preparing for the cold,the dark and for perhaps another bout of gloomy black snowfall.