Education, Environment, News

How Young Mongols Are Tackling Mongolia’s Air Pollution and Other Social Issues

15 · Oct · 2020
Photograph by: on the left - Suniko Bazargarid; on the right - cover of Young Mongols

By Jenny Han Simon

“Mongolia is often portrayed as a land stuck in time,” Aubrey Menard says. “Few people can conceptualize modern Mongolia because there are so few stories and information about it.” Indeed, the mention of Mongolia often conjures images of a pastoral wonderland: endless steppes, eternal blue skies, horses, and the like. Otherwise, Mongolia is typically associated with a certain emperor, who successfully took over most of East and Central Asia, and a large part of Europe. In the 21st century, a time dominated by technology, business, and social-political reformation, Mongolia is seemingly absent; however, this could not be farther from the truth. Be it democracy, the fight for LGBTQ and women’s rights, eco-friendly and sustainable businesses and technology, or pop-culture and fashion, today’s Mongolia defies many of the pre-existing notions people may have of it. As Menard writes in the preface of Young Mongols, “While Mongolia’s land is rich with natural resources, its greatest resource is its young people.”

As the name suggests, Young Mongols focuses on Mongolia’s youth, though not school-aged children as might be expected. Instead, “youth” is directed at young working professionals, entrepreneurs, and those with a progressive mindset and the drive to push Mongolia forward. “Mongolia has some of the most dynamic youth in the world,” Menard says. “Young people are truly the driving force in Mongolia today. They are the heads of NGOs, big corporations, and other endeavors that are dominated by older men otherwise.” The average age in Mongolia is 27.5 years old. Compare this with a national average of 38 years old for the United States, 42 for South Korea, 37 for China, and 39 for Russia. Additionally, 65% of the Mongolian population is under 34 years old (Young Mongols, pg. 295). 

This image of the Mongolian OSCE PA Delegation by OSCE Parliamentary Assembly is licensed for use under CC BY-SA 2.0. No changes were made.

Mongolia’s youthful population elicits many interesting predictions for its future, especially in terms of governance and politics. One of Mongolia’s most pressing issues is, of course, its air pollution; levels of PM2.5 during the wintertime rival large cities like New Delhi and Beijing. Like Mongolia’s demographic age breakdown, its air pollution is also an anomaly compared to other countries, says Menard: “Many countries’ air pollution issues are tied to issues having to do with industrialism, but Mongolia is an exception in this way. It’s not the top one percent contributing to air pollution. There is no corporate bad guy; it’s just average people trying to live. Mongolia’s air pollution issues will take the whole of society to fix.” In the face of a problem created by and furthered by nearly everybody, where everybody shares the same fate, who is responsible for solving it? Unsurprisingly, Mongolia’s youth holds the answer. 

“You cannot talk about Mongolia and youth activism without talking about air pollution,” Menard responded when asked why she chose to feature Breathe Mongolia in her book. Mongolia’s air pollution crisis is not merely due to the burning of raw coal during the wintertime; it is a complex issue that is exacerbated by other issues such as a lack of infrastructure and urban planning, wealth inequality, a lack of environmental awareness, to name a few. For example, Menard points out how the construction of high-rise apartments is one option for reducing gers as a source of pollution, but not everybody can afford such housing options. “There are also capacity issues for housing,” says Menard. “There are only an estimated 4,000 available and affordable apartments in Ulaanbaatar, and there are 220,000 households in the ger district.” Additionally, the erasure of gers also means abandoning a fundamental and iconic part of traditional Mongolian culture. Because Mongolia’s air pollution problem is so multi-faceted, the answer, too, lies within a variety of professions and fields that will—directly or indirectly—influence air pollution. Menard features the work of not only Breathe Mongolia’s founder, Aza, but of other young and driven urban planners, wildlife conservationists, journalists, educators, etc. 

Despite the problems Mongolia faces, the work that has been done thus far is remarkable, and the initiative that young people in Mongolia take to better their country is something that should inspire everybody. “The youth will have more political power soon,” Menard says. “Change will depend on individuals, especially those who decide to stay [in Mongolia], and even those who fight to change the perception of Mongolia from the outside.” While there will always be a place and appreciation for ancient Mongolia, the reality is that Mongolia is modernizing rapidly, and its development and handling of its own issues will likely set a precedent for other countries. 

Breathe Mongolia – Clean Air Coalition was honored to be featured in Young Mongols, especially because many of the qualities that Menard attributes to Mongolia’s youth and what makes it dynamic and inspiring have been crucial in the building of Breathe Mongolia. Our belief in empowering our audience to become educated watchdogs that can hold air pollution stakeholders accountable, rather than relying solely on the government or any organization to “do the right thing,” is contingent upon the defining characteristics of Mongolian youth that Menard highlights in her book—determination, resiliency, innovation, amongst other qualities. Breathe Mongolia is actively utilizing a global network of talented and motivated individuals who lend their unique skills and insights to our mission. Not only do we hope that Menard and the stories of many young Mongols—including ours—will inspire you, but we encourage you to help our cause by donating, sharing Breathe Mongolia with your friends, or joining us.

Learn more and order Young Mongols: Forging Democracy in the Wild, Wild East (Penguin Random House SEA, 2020) at


Photo by Suniko Bazargarid

About Young Mongols author Aubrey Menard: Aubrey Menard lived in Mongolia as a Luce Scholar from 2015 to 2016. She’s worked on democracy and governance issues in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, Central America, and the United States.

Aubrey is an expert on political transitions, elections, and democracy. She’s been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Politico, the South China Morning Post, and more.

Aubrey earned an MPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s degree from Smith College. She is a Critical Language Scholar (Russian) and a Truman National Security Project Fellow. Young Mongols is her first book. Learn more at

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