Economy, Environment, Government, Health Impact, News, Policy

The Perils of Air Pollution for Developing Countries: What Can They Do About It?

02 · Jul · 2021
Photograph by: Evgeny Nelmin on Unsplash

Mонгол хэлээр уншиx | Read in Mongolian


By Munkhbayar Bayartsengel Elkins

Air pollution became the fourth leading risk factor for early death in 2019, accounting for 12% of the total number of global early deaths, according to the State of Global Air 2020 report. This means air pollution has surpassed well-known risk factors for early death like obesity, malnutrition, and even alcohol usage. Published by the Health Effects Institute (HEI) and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s (IHME) Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project, the report serves as a stark reminder of the ongoing air pollution crisis. 

The report further emphasizes the omnipresent crisis of air pollution, noting that over 90% of the global population was exposed to annual average particulate matter (PM) concentrations greater than the WHO’s air quality guideline. This has serious health implications, as countries need to investigate the effectiveness of their current air pollution mitigation policies to address the long-term negative health impacts of pollution.

One of the indicators of rising air pollution levels, especially household pollution, is the socioeconomic status of countries. For instance, developing countries with low socioeconomic development are more vulnerable to higher air pollution concentrations of PM2.5 than developed countries due to low investments in clean energy, provisions of alternative fuels, and weak energy infrastructure. Low investments are mainly due to lack of funding and high startup costs. 

Developing countries are particularly vulnerable to harmful pollutants due to a lack of investment in the renewable energy sector. For example, about 80 percent of Mongolia’s energy comes from coal-fired power plants and less than five percent comes from renewable energy sources. Additionally, a massive urban migration exacerbated by the intensification of natural disasters such as dzud has been occurring since 2000. Economic growth fueled by the mining boom has also contributed to the increased urban migration in Ulaanbaatar. As a result, energy consumption increased from 2.5 Terawatt hour (Twh) in 2000 to 7.3 Twh in 2018—a 192 percent increase.  The observed significant increase in urban migration has caused a strain in Mongolia’s energy infrastructure, causing many households to lack a vital connection to the central grid.  Households without central grid connection use “solid fuels” such as coal, wood, and even animal dung for heating and cooking. This has caused many households to be exposed to dangerous levels of indoor and outdoor PM concentration, risking long-term health complications and chronic diseases.

Source: World Energy Balance 2020

The parliament of Mongolia implemented a National Renewable Energy Program to increase the investment and implementation of renewable energy in Mongolia. The goal of the program includes:

  • Facilitate an effective operation of centralized energy grids and regional power supply systems.
  • Take a gradual approach in implementing renewable energy, reaching up to five percent in 2010 and 25 percent in 2020. 
  • Establish power sources to all soums (provinces), aimags, and settlements. 

Countries that adopted air pollution mitigation policies, such as shifting away from the use of solid fuels to clean energy, saw improvements in air quality. Countries in East Asia, South-East Asia, and Africa witnessed a decrease in exposure to PM2.5 after the introduction of clean energy and the reduction of solid fuels. This is a reminder that the air pollution crisis can be mitigated with effective policies and consistency in reinforcing those policies. In order for Mongolia to succeed, the Mongolian government must ensure that sectors are adhering to energy policies and further investing in renewable energy.

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