Mongolia’s Air Pollution Continues to Worsen

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

The country of Mongolia has an air pollution problem much worse than many others. With an average particulate matter (PM2.5) concentration of 62.00, Mongolia is considered the third most polluted country in the world. Following multiple attempts to curb it, this problem persists, threatening the health and safety of the country’s residents.

Mongolia’s air pollution can be attributed to high concentrations of particulate matter. Particulate matter consists of a mixture of solid and liquid particles of organic and inorganic substances suspended in the air. Particulate matter less than 10 microns (PM10) in size can cross the lung barrier, but particles less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) are the most harmful. Such fine particles can be fatal and cause cardiovascular, respiratory, and cancerous diseases. However, the harmful impacts go beyond lung-related issues. These particles can penetrate the lungs and enter the blood system creating the potential for many issues such as heart attacks, strokes, neurodevelopmental diseases, and even adverse birth outcomes. Any organ that is supplied by blood vessels is prone to harm.

Children are especially vulnerable to such particles since their bodies are still developing. Pneumonia, influenza, and asthma, all of which can be caused by air pollution, are the leading cause of death for children under five in Mongolia. Furthermore, children living in a highly polluted district of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city, were found to have a 40% lower lung function than children living in the less polluted, rural areas. UNICEF even declared Mongolian air pollution a child health crisis in a 2018 report.

Ulaanbaatar, where 45% of the Mongolian population resides, accounts for the most polluted air in the entire country. In the last few decades, many people moved from rural areas to cities, including Ulaanbaatar. This sharp population growth led to the creation of many hastily made settlements, which came in the form of “gers,” also known as yurts. Gers are portable, circular structures made of wood and insulated with felt. As of now, about 60% of Ulaanbaatar’s residents live in these gers.

As the coldest capital city in the world, Ulaanbaatar requires its residents to find ways to keep warm. However, with many residents living in gers with no access to electricity, the solution to staying warm involves the burning of raw coal in stoves. The stoves are standard in every ger, fixed in the center and connected to a chimney that passes through the roof. They can be used to burn several things, but coal burns the longest out of the readily available resources.

However, burning raw coal is a primary cause of air pollution in the city, accounting for about 80% of the total emission during the winter. Those who can’t afford coal resort to burning garbage, adding plastics and other pollutants to the mix.

The Mongolian Government issued a ban on burning raw coal in households in six of Ulaanbaarar’s districts in early 2019, resulting in the previous winter (2019/2020) experiencing higher air quality than previous years. Mongolia is looking for ways to transition to alternative energy sources. However, in the meantime, those who relied on unprocessed coal to keep warm are entitled to government-issued coal briquettes. These are supposedly “cleaner” than the raw coal previously used. Rationing these briquettes have halved the city’s air pollution levels. However, this may not be all good news considering “only 90% decreased air pollution will make any real difference to climate and people’s health,” according to UNICEF’s Mongolian representative, Alex Heikens.

Nevertheless, these briquettes have their own problems as well. Since last October, eight Ulaanbaatar residents have died, and 1,000 have been hospitalized due to carbon monoxide poisoning from burning these briquettes. Even though they are supposed to be rationed, many find a way around regulations and continue to burn them at the same rate as raw coal.

Mongolia assessed its air pollution to find ways to reduce it as they are revising their commitment to its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to climate change. The assessment found primary sources of short-lived climate pollutants, greenhouse gases, and air pollutants. The revised commitment, modeled by the assessment, is to reduce black carbon by 26%, PM2.5 emissions by 17%, and nitrogen oxide emissions by 22% in 2030. Besides the gradual erasure of its coal dependency, Mongolia’s new NDC focuses on electricity and heat generation, energy efficiency, and the reduction of livestock.

Through Teen Lenses: What are your thoughts on Mongolia’s air pollution problem and the country’s response to it?

“I believe that it is great that the government of Mongolia is taking a stand and attempting to counter the massive problem with air pollution. Revising their efforts to mitigate air pollution is a huge step in the right direction, especially when they started a gradual ban on coal. Some people say that this should have happened a while ago, which is true, but I think it’s better late than never.” Dylan Safai, 17, Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville, MD
“I think people living a traditional lifestyle don’t see how much common things negatively impact the environment, so a key part of their reform should be teaching the kids in the country and specifically in the Capital city Ulaanbaatar, about the environment and protecting themselves as a result of bettering the environment. And most importantly, put schools in a safer place, so they don’t face all those risks while trying to learn.” Jace Welsh, 16, Junior at Poolesville High School, Poolesville, MD
“Originally, I thought banning the burning of raw coal completely was extreme, but when I looked into Mongolia’s air pollution problem, I found that it was warranted. That’s almost half their population that lives in Ulaanbaatar, and they’re at serious risk of asthma and other respiratory diseases from the dangerous levels of air pollution in the city. Therefore, I believe the implementation of drastic measures, whatever they may be, are needed to ensure safety.” Tyler Bush, 16, Junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School, Rockville Maryland