A Strategy to Address Air Pollution and Climate Change in Bishkek

Tackling air pollution in Bishkek is an imperative for the health and well-being of its residents and the development of the city. Photo: Andy Funnell
Tackling air pollution in Bishkek is an imperative for the health and well-being of its residents and the development of the city. Photo: Andy Funnell

By Jules Hugot

Decisive action is needed to improve air quality and cut carbon dioxide emissions in the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and air pollution both largely result from fossil fuel combustion. While climate change is a global issue, air pollution often has more localized impacts.  In Bishkek, air pollution has become a critical issue, resulting in strong demand to address it. This creates an opportunity to tackle both air pollution and climate change at the same time.     

Fuel and waste combustion generate fine particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5). These particles penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream, leading to a range of health issues, including respiratory diseases, cardiovascular problems, and cancers.     

In Bishkek, PM2.5 levels soar to 80 μg/m³ on average in winter—16 times higher than the WHO's guideline of 5 μg/m³. The situation is even worse in the outskirts of the city, where concentrations reach up to 150 μg/m³. This hazardous air quality has dire consequences for the city's residents, especially the young and elderly. UNICEF estimated that PM2.5 caused 112 deaths and an economic loss of $20.8 million in just one year.     

Data on air pollution in Bishkek are now widely available, with automatic air quality monitoring stations from KyrgyzHydromet and the United States embassy. In addition, KyrgyzHydromet deployed 50 air pollution sensors in 2021, with support from ADB. And civil society organizations such as MoveGreen have also deployed sensors. This has greatly raised the population’s awareness regarding air pollution.     

Several recent studies by the UNDP and UNEP, UNICEF, and IOM have pointed the sources of air pollution. Notably, residential coal heating emerges as the primary contributor, followed by road transport. To make things worse, Bishkek’s geography and climate often lead to an inversion layer trapping pollutants close to the ground during winter. This makes it imperative to address these sources systematically. 

 

To address these issues, a Clean Air Action Plan outlines the following actions:

Phasing Out Coal from Heating: Residential heating generates close to half of the city’s total PM2.5 emissions—and much more in winter. Coal heating in Bishkek also generates more than 10% of the country’s CO2 emissions. Investing in cleaner coal or natural gas heating would only partially improve air quality, and it would lock-in fossil fuel-based solution, further delaying the transition to clean energy. Instead, the focus should be on providing affordable access to clean heating alternatives and reducing the need for heating in the first place. This requires expanding district heating, replacing coal stoves and boilers with heat pumps, and implementing energy-efficient building retrofits.    

Promoting Clean and Efficient Transport: To further reduce air pollution and mitigate climate change, public transport needs to be cleaned and expanded, notably by scaling up electric buses. Public transport should also become more efficient, by mainstreaming dedicated bus lanes. Encouraging walking and cycling can also take vehicles off the road. The rise of electric cars promises to reduce air pollution and CO2 emissions as hydropower generates about 90% of the country’s electricity. But electric cars will not ease congestion and it will further stress the electricity grid, unless appropriate investments are made.    

Upgrading Solid Waste Management: Proper waste management is also crucial. This is because organic waste decomposition generates methane, contributing to climate change due to its global warming potential, which is 27 times higher than CO2. And when this methane is not released into the atmosphere, it may ignite, resulting in landfill fires emitting large amounts of PM2.5.  In Bishkek, solid waste is also too often burnt in backyards, street sides, and in household stoves for heating. Waste collection should thus be improved, and recycling and waste-to-energy initiatives should be developed to minimize the environmental impact of solid waste.    

Strengthening Monitoring, Evaluation, and Governance: Robust air quality monitoring, emissions inventory, and modeling are essential to enable policymakers to make informed decisions and track progress toward cleaner air. These efforts can be supported by modernizing air quality monitoring infrastructure and official standards, tightening regulations, and strengthening the institutional framework for air quality management.    

Tackling air pollution in Bishkek is an imperative for the health and well-being of its residents and the development of the city. By focusing on a comprehensive strategy that targets the main pollution sources, Bishkek can pave the way toward a cleaner, healthier, and more prosperous future. Addressing air pollution would also cut CO2 emissions, contributing to the Kyrgyz Republic’s climate commitments.    

 It is time for decisive action to clear the skies and breathe new life into Bishkek's urban environment. International donor organizations are committed to assisting in this transition to cleaner air. As the interventions that improve air quality also address climate change, these efforts can attract climate finance solutions, including concessional financing and grants.    

This blog post was produced in coordination with the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI); the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH; the International Organization for Migration (IOM); the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP); the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF); and the World Health Organization (WHO).