This winter has been a relatively happy one for the citizens of Ulaanbaatar. The temperatures dropped to the usual -30C at night occasionally hitting as low as -40C, but we got more clear days and blue skies and tasted less of the acrid, polluted air, compared with the previous 10 years or so. A bold decision was made by the Government of Mongolia a few months earlier to ban raw coal to heat gers, a tent-like traditional dwelling for nomads which now house 60 percent of the city’s population. Over 700,000 tons of coal are burnt annually in the ger district. Last year an alternative product made from semicoke was used instead. Although more expensive, these briquettes burn twice as long and emit fewer fumes.
But Ulaanbaatar still has the most hazardous air on earth. We don’t just breathe it, we taste it. In one of the ger districts, during last December, air pollution exceeded 30 times the World Health Organization’s safe limit. The health costs are staggering, especially for the elderly, children, and pregnant women. There are 3.5 times more miscarriages in winter, as well as recurring lung infections. The World Bank estimates that in 2013 more than 2,400 people died from air pollution. That’s a loss equal to 6.9 percent of the country’s GDP. And like many other problems, air pollution hits the poorest hardest.
The population of Ulaanbaatar has tripled in the last 30 years. Rural residents migrate to big cities for economic opportunities, better education and jobs. As the most immediate strategy, the government, public, private companies and individuals must invest in reducing the most harmful emissions. This includes phasing out inefficient stoves and boilers and replacing raw coal with cleaner-burning briquettes. Strict monitoring and sustainable financing are also needed, along with providing masks and air purifiers in all hospitals and kindergartens.
Long and mid-term strategies include redeveloping the ger area and replacing coal with renewable energy.
A booming construction market
Through the “Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions in the Construction Sector,” (NAMA) project, UNDP is trying to reduce energy consumption. With an increase in housing demand construction is thriving. It’s estimated that about 140,000 apartments will be constructed in the next ten years. The building industry alone contributes to over 11 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and energy demand is expected to increase as the urban population grows.
The greenhouse gas savings and the cost-benefits of low carbon interventions in the building sector are not systematically quantified in Mongolia and their benefits remain unclear and done on ad-hoc basis. Major challenges persist in measuring and monitoring energy consumption.
This is where NAMA comes in. Greenhouse gas inventory methodology is developed to measure emission reductions. This will enable the government and the private sector to get funds from international donors. It will also help create public awareness about the need for energy efficient buildings.
“Although it is just a pilot project, it shows the importance of energy efficiency in old and new buildings alike. Both in rural and urban Mongolia, there is an increasing demand for apartment buildings and new housing,” says Project Coordinator Bayarlkham Byambaa.
Mongolia needs a committed, ambitious and realistic strategy to enable a healthy, sustainable and prosperous tomorrow for all. Long-term strategic planning as pursued with the continuation of ongoing efforts is a key to ensure consistency and adequate ambition to combat the deadly air pollution crisis. Efforts must come from the government, private sector and consumers. And they will need to be sustained and systematically pursued. UNDP Mongolia will tackle air pollution, harnessing partners to address both the symptoms and causes of air pollution. Engaging people, as citizens and communities, are central to win the fight.
“While we cannot control Mongolia’s freezing weather, we can introduce new technologies and innovative ideas,” Bayarlkham Byambaa says.