New Solutions, not Smog, on the Horizon for Ukraine’s Air Quality

April 30, 2020


Kyivans, while still staying indoors to stop the spread of the coronavirus disease COVID-19, hopefully have the end of the quarantine in sight.

But this April, in addition to being locked down in quarantine, they also had to stay home due to a much older problem: Poor air quality brought on by dust and smoke from forest fires, which reduced visibility and raised pollution to health-threatening levels in the capital. With climate change making the weather drier and warmer, these events are becoming more frequent – and more extreme.

However, just as the coronavirus quarantine restrictions may be coming to an end, a Kyiv with clean air is now within reach. Experts from Ukraine’s Ministry of Energy and Environment Protection have joined forces with the Center for Innovations Development think tank and the United Nations Development Programme to track and tackle the causes behind the precipitous drops in air quality, which always coincide with the agricultural practice of burning leaves and post-harvest stubble in fall, and the scorching of grass and weeds to prepare for planting in the spring.

Ukrainians are used to the bouts of poor air quality resulting from this practice, but it was a shock for many when Ukraine’s capital topped the live Air Quality and Pollution City Ranking on 16-17 April with a score of 380. The next dirtiest cities in the world had scores less than half that – Shenyang with 180 and Chengdu with 171.

The AQI is like a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. For example, an AQI value of 50 or below represents good air quality, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality. For those two days, Kyiv was well into the hazardous zone, and residents were told to stay indoors – as if the coronavirus lockdown was not reason enough.

Don’t Burn – Compost!

While tackling climate change is a global endeavour in which Ukraine of course has its part to play, the problem of grass and forest fires has to be tackled domestically. In fact, the United Nations Development Programme in Ukraine’s Accelerator Lab has been working on the problem of seasonal air pollution since October 2019, when Kyiv was hit by a wave of smog.

The lab, part of UNDP’s new global network of idea laboratories thinking up innovative solutions to today’s rapidly evolving development challenges, quickly identified the practice of burning organic waste – especially agricultural waste – as one of the causes of the regular bouts of air pollution in Ukraine.

Every problem requires a solution, and the name of the initiative UNDP in Ukraine’s Accelerator Lab came up with – “Don’t’ Burn – Compost!” – neatly encapsulates this.

For Ukrainian farmers, burning agricultural organic waste is a time- and labour-efficient way to prepare the soil for the next season. For centuries, Ukraine’s farmers have used fire to burn off crop waste and weeds, and return nutrients to the soil ahead of the growing season. Blessed with some of the most fertile farmland in the world, the practice has never caused any great problems.

Until now.

Climate change, having made the land drier, has reduced groundwater levels and cut into the wetlands that used to form natural firebreaks, which has increased the risk of fires getting out of control.

The solution to this problem produced by UNDP in Ukraine’s Accelerator Lab draws on its “Innovations by Nature” approach – the idea that through millions of years of evolution, nature herself has produced solutions to many of the problems now facing modern humankind.

Instead of burning waste, the natural solution is to compost it.

Lots of benefits

Composting of waste offers a lot of benefits: It produces none of the airborne particulates – so harmful to human health – that are associated with burning. The composted material is just as an efficient way of returning nutrients to the soil as burning. Moreover, it also helps meet communities' need for fertilizers for gardening, as well as backfills, landscaping materials, and more.

Under the pilot “Don’t Burn – Compost!” project, which is being implemented jointly with the Center for Innovations Development and the Ministry of Energy and Environment Protection of Ukraine,participating communities will be able to track in almost real-time the fires in their communities, and also enter data collected by local community activists to a specially designed online map.

With e-solutions, project participants will also be able to get information about fires in their communities over the last three years based on satellite data (analysis reveals that about 80 percent of fires in some communities occur in the same locations). For monitoring purposes, satellite data and one of the GIS solutions piloted by the “E-Solutions for Communities” project will be used. 

Currently, 160 communities from all over Ukraine have registered to participate in the project, but given the heightened interest and relevance of the problem, UNDP has decided to extend the deadline for applications and to work with all concerned communities and partners.

UNDP also invites experts and those who are concerned about the topic to fill out a short form and join an online project support group.

In addition to working for a change in human behaviour, the Accelerator Lab team recognizes that long-term, holistic work on fire ecology and climate adaptation is also needed, including the post-fire management of burned areas, the restoration of multi-species forests, wetland restoration, restoration of arable land, the creation of maps for emergency responders, and forestry management. The project will thus also touch on these topics.