When pondering the most polluted cities in the world, it is natural to think of highly industrialized and densely populated cities like Beijing or Mumbai as being atop the list. Therefore, it will likely come as a surprise to find out that Ulaanbaatar, the capital and largest city of Mongolia, is the second-most polluted city in the world.
Mongolia suffers from climate change more than nearly any other country. And needless to say, in a country as poor and pastoral as Mongolia is, the effects of this are calamitous. Though Mongolians may be the ones suffering from the effects of climate change now, it ought to be noted that given our current trend, their situation will likely be mirrored in nations throughout the world — Mongolia is the dress rehearsal for the horrible play which is climate change.
Over the past 70 years, the average temperature in Mongolia has risen by 2.07 degrees, dramatically higher than the global average of 0.85 degrees over the past century — and this climate change has had drastic effects on both the city and the countryside.
In Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar means “the red hero,” referencing its socialist history as a dominion of the Soviet Union. Nowadays, however, locals have wryly began referring to the city as Kharbaatar, which means, “the black hero.” The city suffers immensely from air pollution, with air particulate levels being four times higher than the World Health Organization’s target for developing countries, and 14 times higher than the WHO’s global guidelines.
Besides the insufferable smog, air pollution has terrible effects on the health of the locals, especially children. A UNICEF investigation reported that “children are projected to suffer from unprecedented levels of chronic respiratory disease later in life,” and urged that the health of Ulaanbaatar’s children not be neglected any longer. According to a 2011 investigation, one in 10 of the city’s residents die at least in part due to air pollution.
Children born in rural Mongolia have 50 percent better lung health than their urban counterparts. However, those living in the countryside are still impacted by pollution. The country’s above average increase in temperature has caused widespread desertification of Mongolia’s grasslands — areas which were imperative to pastoralists’ success in the past. Over the past 30 years, about 850 lakes and 2,000 rivers have dried up, and approximately a quarter of the country has desertified.
Climate change has also exacerbated the effects of a Mongolian natural phenomenon called the dzud, where the combination of a summer drought and a harsh winter causes widescale death of livestock. In 2010, an unprecedented eight million livestock died due to the dzud. This past winter, a million more died. In a nation where a quarter of the population are nomadic herders, this dzud is nothing short of a catastrophe.
The dzud’s wrath lead many people to move to Ulaanbaatar in search of a more stable lifestyle, but these migrations only exacerbated the city’s pollution problem. The majority of Ulaanbaatar’s pollution is generated by coal furnaces of migrants who live on the outskirts of the city in gers. These furnaces help people survive the city’s long and harsh winters which often reach temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.
The steps that ought to be taken, and are currently being considered, are twofold. First, in the city itself, coal must be phased out in favor of natural gas, a far less toxic energy source. This means ending long-standing coal subsidies and expanding the energy grid to the ger regions. The results of decreasing air pollution would be hugely transformative for the city — just a 50 percent reduction in particulate matter created by ger heating would cause a 33 percent decrease in total air particulate levels in the city.
Second, in order to decrease the flow of migrants to the city, who place greater strain on Ulaanbaatar’s already weak infrastructure and limited resources, the government must help nomadic herders. Of course this is easier said than done, however, there are historical solutions for the crisis.
Just 30 years ago, when Mongolia was still under socialist rule, the country’s herding practices and livestock population were carefully regulated. Officials maintained an emergency reserve of livestock to mitigate effects of dzuds. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, such measures were abandoned in favor of a free market. Now, herders are allowed to own as many animals as they wish and live wherever they want. While this sounds ideal, it has actually resulted in rampant overgrazing and inadequate government responses to dzuds. A partial return to these socialist policies, which worked for well for nearly a century, ought to be considered.
The recent election of a new mayor of Ulaanbaatar and president of Mongolia has improved the country’s optimism. The new mayor, Sunduin Batbold, issued a decree earlier this year aimed at preventing further immigration into the city, in hopes of relieving the strain on the city’s resources. Batbold said of his city: “Ulaanbaatar is like a family living in a ger that became too small to contain all the members of the extended family.” The election of a new president, Khaltmaagiin Battulga, has inspired hope that a $5.5 billion bailout from the IMF might be back on the table.
The meeting between Battulga and Batbold about pollution and overpopulation last month illustrates the government’s sincerity towards addressing these problems. While the symptoms of climate change may be severe, the antidote is hardly elusive. This relative clarity of the path towards resolution, especially in relation to other pressing crises around the world, implies that Mongolia’s future is not to be marred by smog.
As the world continues to ignore the effects of climate change, it would be prudent to consider the tribulations of the Mongolian people, and pay close attention to how their policies mitigate or exacerbate their situation.