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How Mongolia’s Air Pollution Crisis Stacks Up: A Comparison between Mongolia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and the United Kingdom

06 · Mar · 2021

Mонгол хэлээр эндээс уншаарай

By Jenny Han Simon and Brittany Ann Bondi

Air pollution is the silent killer behind a growing number of deaths worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that ambient (outdoor) air pollution is responsible for 4.2 million deaths annually. Additionally, the combination of ambient and household air pollution causes about 7 million deaths annually. 

Mongolia’s capital city—Ulaanbaatar—consistently ranks as one of the most polluted cities in the world during the winter months. Particulate matter, PM2.5 and PM10, levels consistently surpass the WHO-recommended guidelines for healthy air. PM10 denotes Particulate Matter smaller than 10 micrograms, which is visible to the naked eye and can enter the lungs. PM2.5 denotes Particulate Matter smaller than 2.5 micrograms and is small enough to enter the bloodstream. Both types can wreak havoc on the human body and various organ systems, leading to short-term and long-term health effects.

While the contents in toxic and unhealthy air are usually the same—a combination of PM2.5, PM10, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants—the context behind every country with an air pollution problem is different. While some countries with large populations, such as the United Kingdom, China, and India also have air pollution issues, Mongolia’s air pollution cannot be blamed on a few corporate entities or industrial “bad guys” only. 

The largest source of emissions in Mongolia during the cold season is thought to be from everyday citizens, who burn coal to stay warm in the long, sub-zero winter. Additionally, the use of renewable energy from sources such as solar and wind is a particular challenge in Mongolia, as they don’t produce enough energy to heat a home during the -40℃ winter. If it’s a matter of survival, what can be done about this problem? What has been done about this problem? By examining Mongolia’s air pollution crisis in comparison to the experiences of other countries, we hope to move closer to the answer.    

Bangladesh

A majority of Bangladesh’s air pollution comes from outdated brick factories and congested traffic. By burning coal and wood to create clay bricks, kilns emit immense amounts of dust, PM2.5, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. These kilns are not only the source of about 40% of the country’s air pollutants but are also the primary source of income for over a million people. Thus, efforts to improve the country’s air pollution must be sensitive to the country’s unique socio-economic conditions.

However, the two countries do share similarities. Bangladesh often finds itself alongside Mongolia on the list of countries with the worst air pollution in the world. The rate of population growth in Ulaanbaatar and Dhaka—Bangladesh’s capital—far exceeds the cities’ abilities to develop infrastructure. As a result, roads are often overcrowded. The excess of cars and stalled traffic means nearly 15% of Bangladeshi carbon dioxide emissions come from transportation. Meanwhile, in Mongolia, transportation accounts for over 13% of the country’s carbon emissions. Transportation in both countries is a further source for other pollutants, such as PM2.5 and nitrous oxide.

Although the transition to cleaner brick kilns is both costly and time-consuming, the government and non-government organizations have been working to improve Bangladesh’s air quality. In hopes of improving the country’s air quality, authorities began demolishing kiln sites in late 2019. However, because many low-income groups rely on brick making for income, this decision came at the cost of jobs for thousands in Bangladesh. Therefore, it is imperative that all solutions take the needs of vulnerable populations’ needs into consideration. 

In 2009, the World Bank and Bangladeshi government established the Clean Air and Sustainable Environment (CASE). CASE is a government-led project that aims to reduce pollution from brickfields and transportation by improving infrastructure and introducing energy-efficient technology. The project is working on introducing mass public transit, increasing pedestrian accessibility in cities, and enforcing stricter environmental regulations on the manufacturing sector. 

Nigeria 

Energy generation is a notable air pollution source in both Mongolia and Nigeria. However, while Mongolia’s polluting energy source primarily comes from burning coal, Nigeria’s comes from burning diesel gasoline for both transit and domestic energy use. Diesel-powered generators provide power for 40% of Nigeria’s population, especially those not connected to the city’s main power grid. Businesses, ranging from bakeries to telecommunication companies, further rely on these gas-guzzling generators. 

Unfortunately, this is an incredibly environmentally devastating energy source. As with the diesel engines from vehicles, these generators emit immense amounts of greenhouse gases and particulate matter, furthering Nigerians’ exposure to both indoor and outdoor pollutants. Nigeria currently imports fuel with particularly high sulfur content. The resulting sulfur dioxide emissions further exacerbate breathing problems and can increase the chance of developing heart diseases.

Poor road conditions and the use of outdated vehicle models only exacerbate the negative effects of the country’s transportation-sourced pollution. While most of the cars in the cities are older models and rely on diesel fuel, citizens often don’t have a better transit option. With only 1.3 km per million people, Lagos has the shortest length of public rail of all the world’s megacities. Compounding these challenges, Nigerian cities may see total population increases of up to 189 million by 2050. As with Bangladesh and Mongolia, more automobiles, infrastructure, and buildings will be needed to accommodate current and new citizens. 

Supporting National Action Planning (SNAP) is just one example of an initiative aiming to better Nigeria’s air quality. By identifying emission sources and potential mitigation strategies, SNAP seeks to fill financial and capacity gaps and help the country develop a comprehensive national action plan. This initiative—managed by the Climate & Clean Air Coalition—also has activities in many countries around the globe, including Mongolia and Bangladesh. Nigeria’s National Action Plan was approved in May 2019 and included initiatives aimed at increasing public transportation access and energy efficiency along with several others

England

What makes England particularly different from Mongolia is its socioeconomic characteristics. The Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in England is about $42,000 USD, while Mongolia’s stands at around $3,811 USD. Air pollution is still a deadly occurrence in both countries, showing that the fight for clean air does not exist within a Global North-Global South divide. It is an issue that affects all types of countries around the world. 

England also has a particularly deadly history with air pollution. In 1952, industrial air pollution caused one of the most infamous deadly air pollution events: the Great Smog of London. Household and industrial furnaces, burning coal, were a constant source of air pollution for the city. However, anticyclone weather conditions also trapped the sulfur-filled smoke at ground level. About 8,000 to 12,000 lives were lost from short- and long-term complications of this five-day event.

Contemporary pollution in English cities now primarily comes from overcrowded roads. Diesel-based vehicles are particularly significant sources of nitrogen dioxide pollution. Inhaling excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide is associated with aggravated coughing and wheezing, inflamed lungs, and increased asthma rates in children. The country recently made international headlines as a UK court officially attributed air pollution as the cause of death for 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah. Although she passed away in 2013, it was only in 2020 that a coroner ruled the source of Ella’s death to be air pollution.

In 2019, the United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs published a Clean Air Strategy with the ultimate goal of significantly reducing air pollutant emissions by 2030. Specific goals within the strategy include the passage of legislation to forbid the sale of the most polluting fuels; the increase of local monitoring of environmental impacts of air pollution; and the reduction of the number of people living in areas where PM2.5 pollution exceeds WHO safety levels by 50%.

Mongolia—what makes Mongolia’s air pollution issue unique? 

Mongolia’s air pollution crisis can be attributed to a number of factors: some similar to the previously-mentioned countries and some different. 

First, while the social and economic conditions that contribute to air pollution are similar across many developing countries, the unchangeable geography of Mongolia’s capital city poses different challenges that require different solutions. 

Ulaanbaatar is located at the bottom of a valley and is surrounded by four mountains. Often, the city’s landscape and these mountains are both obscured by the haze. The reason for this is not just the output of air pollutants, but also what is known as a temperature inversion. Typically, the air temperature is warmer near the ground, and it decreases as you go up in the atmosphere. An inversion occurs when cold air is trapped under warm air, thereby trapping pollutants within. The cold air from Ulaanbaatar’s nearby mountains flows into and under the warm air from the city. This means that the mountain ranges and other climatological conditions often prevent wind, rain, or snow from clearing air pollutants. Additionally, sunlight further converts some of these trapped pollutants, such as nitrous oxide, into ozone, leading to further problems related to human health and climate change. 

Comparison of Ulaanbaatar on a ‘hazy’ versus ‘clear’ day

Additionally, 46%, about 1.8 million, of Mongolia’s total population resides in Ulaanbaatar. Over 60% live in the ger districts, which are the largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in Ulaanbaatar. (A ger is the traditional nomadic housing unit of Mongolia, consisting of a circular wooden frame, layers of felt as the interior and exterior sources of insulation, and a stove with a chimney that protrudes through the center.) Residents of the ger districts rely on coal for warmth during the winter, using their stoves to burn it throughout the day and night. This household fuel burning exacerbates the city’s pollution level to hazardous levels.

Still, although these households technically make up 93% of total thermal energy users in the country, they only use about 28% of the country’s energy. Businesses have disproportionate energy usage. Numerically, businesses constitute a mere 7% of total energy users, but they use 72% of the country’s thermal energy. Unfortunately, this business use does not necessarily translate into substantial economic growth. In fact, the country recently dropped from the World Bank’s “medium-high income” status to a “medium-low income” status. Mining has become yet another business compounding the country’s air pollution, with heavy vehicles kicking up dust on hard-to-monitor countryside lands. 

In Mongolia, extreme cold and warm weather are becoming more common each year. The extreme weather patterns, fueled by climate change, have adverse effects for Mongolian citizens, animals, and various ecosystems. These changing weather conditions also contribute to its air pollution problem. The occurrence of dzuds, characterized by droughts in the summer and brutal cold in the winter, lead to the death of herders’ livestock as a result of starvation and the cold. In 2009-2010, a dzud killed 22% of Mongolia’s livestock

“Livestock covered by snow during Mongolia’s long harsh winter (Dzud) in 2010” by UNDP Mongolia under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. license No changes were made.

The changing climate of Mongolia is fueled mainly by the emissions of other larger countries, such as China, Russia, and Korea. These emissions from larger countries tend to be caused by industrial development and operations, as well as international trade and transport. For example, the United States has the highest per capita carbon emissions, yet the effects are felt more dramatically in other parts of the world. As a result of dzuds and other features of climate change in Mongolia, many herders give up their livelihood and move to cities for better opportunities for themselves and their families. 

Mongolia’s air pollution crisis is, in some ways, no different from the described experiences of Bangladesh, Nigeria, and the UK. While particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and other hazardous substances continue to be inhaled by people all over the world, the conditions that create and aggravate one country’s pollution crisis are unique to that area. 

For instance, while all four countries share traffic emissions as a source of their air pollution, traffic emissions only account for a fraction of Mongolia’s total air pollution. Likewise, the poor socioeconomic conditions that fuel air pollution in both Mongolia and Bangladesh may not be felt in the same way in Nigeria or the UK. Further, none of the other three countries share Mongolia’s cold climate or geographical conditions that exacerbate pollution in Ulaanbaatar. 

The experiences of and solutions to air pollution crises in different countries should be shared, as this is not a singular problem. What may work in one country and society may not work in another. However, collaboration and learning from these shared experiences can only be beneficial for all such countries as they look forward to a brighter future with cleaner air. 

Looking Forward

A few planned infrastructure projects may further deplete Mongolia’s air quality, including new coal energy plants. According to an analysis conducted by newclimate.org, Mongolia’s expected coal-fired power generation expansion would result in the premature death of 1,560 people by 2050. To be located 260 km outside of Ulaanbaatar, the Shivee Ovoo plant alone may lead to 640 premature deaths. Currently, sulfur dioxide levels are also a point of concern in Ulaanbaatar, with residents complaining about the smell in addition to symptoms such as headaches. According to the Mongolian government, sulfur dioxide levels increased 99% between 2019 and 2020. 

While the current air pollution conditions and future infrastructure plans make Mongolia’s air quality projections seem grim, there is potential for positive change going forward. The Mongolian government has claimed a significant improvement in Ulaanbaatar’s particulate matter level during the winter of 2019-2020 when compared to the past five years. This may have been due to the government’s decision to ban the burning of raw coal in March of 2019.

However, additional research on other pollutants based on accessible data is needed in order to fully understand the effects of this particular policy and the impact of ongoing efforts made by the Mongolian government in the fight against air pollution. 

Many organizations are working to improve the country’s air quality. Breathe Mongolia, alongside UNICEF, and other partner organizations recently launched a new initiative called Agaar Neg. This website is a collaborative platform for organizations fighting air pollution in Mongolia to publish their initiatives, share news and resources, and connect with each other. By allowing a wide variety of organizations to understand one another’s current projects and achievements, Agaar Neg will help organizations streamline their efforts to better fill the gaps in the fight against air pollution.

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