Mongolia is at a crucial moment with the chance to improve the everyday lives of its citizens through actions to improve air quality.
Mongolia is a sprawling, sparsely populated country spanning more than 1.5 million square kilometers. Its capital city, Ulaanbaatar, is home to only 1.6 million people. However, it regularly ranks amongst the most polluted cities in the world.
The air in Ulaanbaatar is a danger to public health and has proven to be especially hazardous to children. This increases their risk of pneumonia, asthma, bronchitis, and worst of all: premature death. It is most severe during the harsh winter months when temperatures can dip from -20°C to -40°C.
Coal is at the heart of Mongolia’s severe air pollution problem. To combat the freezing temperatures, up to 92% of households in Ulaanbaatar burn coal to warm their homes, contributing to air pollution in the city. Concentrations of air pollutants can reach up to 500 micrograms per cubic meter, ten times the World Health Organization’s recommended levels of 50 micrograms per cubic meter.
Exacerbating the issue, ger areas (home to about 850,000 people living in traditional Mongolian huts) comprise low-density housing that spills into the valleys and hills surrounding Ulaanbaatar. These districts are not connected to district heating networks.
After the burning of raw coal was banned in May 2019, air quality improved significantly with the switch to higher-quality coal briquettes. Even so, this was still nowhere near enough to bring air quality readings in the city down to healthy levels.
To tackle the persistent air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, several key issues must be addressed: affordability, more innovative urban planning, and transitioning to renewable energy sources. In the immediate term, however, the severity of the public health situation necessitates faster measures to bring down air pollution to more acceptable levels, even if this initially relies heavily on electricity from non-renewable energy sources.
The most effective way to significantly reduce air pollution in Ulaanbaatar is to transition from traditional coal burning in ger areas to electrification of heating. Two major constraints are slowing down this process. First, coal is typically the easiest and cheapest energy source in Mongolia. The poorest in Ulaanbaatar do not have much of a choice—either they burn coal or risk freezing to death. Hence, subsidies targeting the poor for upfront costs of conversion to electric heat and for increased ongoing electricity costs can help address this problem.
Second, the weakness of Ulaanbaatar’s electricity network will constrain the speed with which electric heating can be deployed. Full adoption of direct electric heating to homes in the ger areas will necessitate 1.6 gigawatts of added power generating capacity. Hence, investing in more efficient alternatives, such as air source heat pumps instead of direct electric heating, could help reduce the needed expansion of Ulaanbaatar’s power-generating capacity.
More generally, improving energy efficiency across the city is key. To keep costs low, government funding can go to improving insulation in homes to reduce the energy required to keep homes warm and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This includes installing more efficient boilers and stoves, sealing air leaks, and adding insulation to walls and roofs.
Smarter design and green urban planning can significantly improve the quality of life in cold cities, reduce air pollution related to transport and heating, and increase overall resilience to extreme weather. This includes improved use of green spaces and climate-proof design, to block the wind and collect stormwater. Public transport should be provided so that services and amenities are accessible despite extreme weather conditions.
Mongolia has the potential to generate 2,600 gigawatts of electricity from solar and wind power alone, which is enough to meet the energy needs of the entire country and reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
However, this can only be done if technologies are in place to properly manage the variability and ensure a secure supply when wind and solar generation is low. This includes developing a battery storage system in Mongolia that can store electricity produced from the sun and wind when consumer demand is low and supply those consumers with clean power when demand increases, reducing the need for fossil power supply.
Combating air pollution while building climate resilience in a cold city like Ulaanbaatar is a complex and multifaceted challenge that requires different strategies and approaches. These come with multiple benefits: national renewable energy sources, better public transport, more energy-efficient housing and heating systems, better air quality, and an overall increase in urban quality of life.
Mongolia is at a crucial moment to improve the everyday lives of its citizens. Any momentum generated now can contribute to a rapidly growing sustainability and green energy sector, and carry over to the country’s nationally determined contribution commitments under the Paris Agreement.