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Land Matters: Polar Power

Murmansk is the largest city above the Arctic Circle, with about 300,000 people. Until 2013, most of the 200 or so buses run by the city’s largest bus company, Murmanskavtotrans, or MAT, were old and shedding large amounts of black carbon exhaust into the atmosphere. Black carbon is also known as soot, and diesel exhaust is a rich source of it. By the end of last year, 52 new MAZ-103 buses were on the roads of Murmansk; they meet the European Union’s second-highest standards for vehicle emissions, known as Euro 5, which took effect in 2011 and are the first such standards to regulate emissions of particulate matter, which includes black carbon, by mandating an 80 percent reduction. They are sparing the atmosphere an estimated 2,100 kilograms of black carbon a year from Murmansk’s buses, and saving MAT more than $600,000 a year on fuel. Another major bus company in the city, Elektrotransport, has begun following the lead of MAT by upgrading its fleet.

This bus trade-in is progress not just for public health—black carbon particles can cause harm to the heart and lungs, and premature death—but for global health, too. Black carbon, which comes from fossil fuels and also the burning of biomass, goes into the air, but not for long. In the Arctic, it lands on snow or ice cover, absorbs sunlight that would otherwise be reflected, and creates a heating effect. The soot deposits can be large and plainly visible from a distance. But because black carbon has such a short-lived suspension in the atmosphere, and its harm is done quickly, eliminating its sources can produce positive effects quickly, too.

The United States’s effort in Murmansk, which is said to be proceeding despite the chill in relations with Russia generally, comes as the United States is in the middle of a two-year term as chair of the Arctic Council, a multilateral forum of eight nations with territory above the Arctic Circle (Denmark is a member because of its sovereignty over Greenland). The EPA, along with the State Department and other federal agencies, has adopted black carbon reduction as a major policy priority.

The Arctic region is warming at two times the average global rate, and any country with a strategic geopolitical interest is looking north. The sea ice is melting, as you have likely heard, opening up long-locked waters to navigation—and oil drilling. The area within the Arctic Circle holds 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its natural gas, plus huge mineral wealth, including coveted rare earth elements. It’s quite a feedback loop: Global warming is opening the northern seas for exploration to find the fossil fuel that is causing global warming. On land, the permafrost, like the sea ice, is melting, releasing methane that accelerates warming (more bad feedback).

The Murmansk bus project is one way the U.S. government is working with other Arctic Council nations to try to mitigate environmental crises at the top of the world. Four million people live above the Arctic Circle. In Alaska, about 70,000 people in 200 villages lie off the road system; there are 300 off-road villages in Canada. One major goal of the United States’s push to cut black carbon emissions is to wean these communities off diesel and other dirty fuels with local grids of clean, renewable energy. Scandinavian countries, which have large populations in the Arctic, already rely heavily on local grid systems.

None of this, of course, squares with the Obama administration’s decision in the spring to allow Royal Dutch Shell to try once again to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea off the North Slope of Alaska—a choice Al Gore recently called “insane” in an interview with the Guardian. Shell bolted from the region a few years ago when it found the drilling too tough. If the world is in luck, the company will get the same result again. The United States seems to have a clear view of the big picture in the Arctic. Now it needs to focus on getting the little picture right, too.

Bradford McKee
Landscape Architecture Magazine 

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