On the map of Russia, Kuzbass in southern Siberia nestles roughly above Mongolia and Kazakhstan.
It’s an area few Europeans know much about, and even fewer visit. But it’s a place most of us are inextricably linked to.
For despite Europe’s shift towards renewable energy, coal from southern Kuzbass provides electricity which lights and heats homes, powers transport, and helps drive economies across our continent.
Kuzbass is the epicentre of Russia’s expanding coal industry: around 76 per cent of Russia’s coal exports come from there, and much of it is eventually shipped to European ports and converted into energy in Europe’s power stations.
At the end of 2017 this report’s authors travelled to Kuzbass to follow up investigations on the impact of coal mining in the region conducted by the Russian non-governmental organisation (NGO) Ecodefense.
Kuzbass’s coalfields lie some 6,500 kilometres from Brussels, but what the authors found could be from another time, evoking the wretched conditions that characterised the coal industry in the 19th century.
First, there’s the environmental impact.
Coal mining has razed forests, blackened rivers, contaminated the air with dust, and created waste mounds. Those who live there say the region has become a moonscape from which many are desperate to escape.
Then there’s the human cost.
At the heart of this report are the testimonies of the indigenous Shors, a Turkic people whose survival and beliefs are intimately tied to the nature around them, but whose ancestral lands and villages have been ravaged by mining, leading, many say, to the slow death of their culture and way of life. It’s estimated that in seven years, the Shor population of the region has declined by almost 50 per cent.
Yet they do not bear the cost of coal mining alone.
All who live in the vicinity of the mines are prey to their impact. Official statistics reveal increases in tuberculosis, cardiovascular diseases, maternal and child illnesses and a shortened life expectancy. The paradox, though, is that many locals’ livelihoods are dependent on the mines that are causing them such harm.
Finally, there’s the effect on the climate.
Coal is the single biggest contributor to man-made climate change. Deforestation accounts for up to a tenth of current carbon dioxide emissions.1
So destroying forests to make way for coal mines in Kuzbass is a ‘double whammy’ in climate terms.
Those who consume Kuzbass coal must not turn a blind eye to its impact. According to the Siberian Customs Administration, of the top 21 destinations for Kuzbass coal, 11 are in the European Union. In fact, according to the same source, more than half of all the coal exported from there ends up in the EU, with the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany among the prime markets.
Coal’s days, we’re assured, are numbered. Averting catastrophic climate change means urgently ending our fossil fuel addiction. For the vast majority of those who the authors interviewed in Kuzbass, this cannot happen soon enough.