Tailored anti-smog recommendations made for Mongolia

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Ulaanbaatar residents continue to suffer from the alarmingly high level of air pollution. The impact goes beyond harmful and insidious health effects and has become a significant development challenge.
A lack of urban planning, particularly amid rapid migration to the city from rural areas, is defined as the core of the problem. Experts noted that unless strategic actions are urgently adopted, pollution and its associated costs will severely worsen especially since the city population is expected to surge to 1.9 million by 2025, and to 2.7 million by 2050.
In 2013, welfare costs from exposure to air pollution in Mongolia were equivalent to 6.9 percent of the country’s annual gross domestic product.
To make anti-smog actions more effective, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) published its first edition of Observations and Suggestions series on the topic “Winning the Fight Against Air Pollution in Ulaanbaatar” last December. By reviewing key factors causing air pollution in Ulaanbaatar and some successful experiences of other countries that can be adopted, the policy note presents recommendations that can crystallize the existing policy momentum into a long-term, institutionalized framework for sustainable solutions to reduce air pollution in the capital.

“While lessons from other countries are valuable for Mongolia, the high rate of rural-urban migration and extremely harsh winters create a unique challenge for the country and require a tailored approach. Solutions will demand concerted and sustained efforts by multiple stakeholders — the general public, civil society, the private sector, and development partners — led by strong government accountability for, and ownership of, pollution issues,” the report read.

“Short-term actions through to 2020 should prioritize reducing the major drivers of air pollution and mitigating health effects related to pollution. Longer-term measures through to 2030 should aim to improve air quality in Ulaanbaatar on a sustainable basis. Designing, planning, and budgeting for the short- and long-term policies is challenging, but success will result in a significant and sustained boost to Mongolia’s productivity and lay the foundations for dynamic urban centers to drive future economic growth.”

ADB acknowledged the Mongolian government’s previous and ongoing actions to effectively mitigate air pollution but stressed that more can be done if the following recommendations are carried out.

Short-term policy actions

  1. Create an initiative driven by multiple stakeholders to oversee policy actions on pollution reduction. The National Committee for the Reduction of Air Pollution needs to have the power to push through key measures to combat air pollution in Ulaanbaatar. Because reducing air pollution will require concerted and consistent effort over many years, political leaders must reach a cross-party consensus on the actions required to do so. Such a consensus will ensure a sustainable approach to fighting air pollution; an approach that can withstand changes of government or short-term political motives.
  2. Increase public awareness by improving communications about air pollution. Regular and accurate information on the severity of air pollution and its associated health impacts should be made available to the people of Ulaanbaatar. Good sources of information exist and this information should be disseminated more widely. Awareness campaigns should be implemented to help inform the public about effective strategies to mitigate the effects of pollution, for example, specifying situations when air pollution masks are required and what type of masks should be used. Improving the understanding of the link between outdoor and indoor air pollution is another important area that should be targeted through awareness campaigns.
  3. Strengthen the analytical approach to understanding the impact of pollution and identify corrective actions. Policymakers and other stakeholders do not share a common understanding of the effectiveness of different policies available to tackle air pollution in Mongolia. A robust assessment of available policy options, based on analytical research, would provide an invaluable tool for policymakers to identify the most cost-effective solutions and to allocate budget resources accordingly.
  4. 4. Establish standards and certification for health protection measures. There is insufficient public knowledge of the mitigating measures for air pollution. This means that residents, particularly those in Ulaanbaatar, often do not take mitigating actions or use such measures inappropriately. Basic standards, based on international protocols, should be established for protection measures in Mongolia, including air masks, monitors, air purifiers, etc. In addition, a certification process should be introduced to ensure that consumers can easily identify which pollution-mitigating products meet the required standards.
  5. Step up efforts to reduce the burning of raw coal and solid waste. Efforts to incentivize the use of more environment-friendly fuels to a sustainable level should become a policy priority. While the government of Mongolia’s ban on the use of raw coal in Ulaanbaatar from May 2019 is a good start, more work is needed to establish mechanisms for the procurement and distribution of clean coal to encourage the private sector to enter the clean-coal market. This will reduce the need for subsidies and ensure adequate storage and distribution channels. For maximum impact, efforts to introduce lower emitting stoves, as well as electric stoves, need to be continued in parallel with incentives on cleaner sources of heating.
  6. Classify polluting products by level of emissions. Behavioral change is needed to curb air pollution in Ulaanbaatar over the long-term and this will require changes to incentives to encourage the use of cleaner fuel or lower-emitting stoves. The government should therefore introduce regulatory changes to classify pollution-emitting products, such as stoves or fuel, based on emission levels. This is a prerequisite to levying higher taxes on the import of poor-quality transport fuel and reducing taxes on cleaner fuels. It is important for government inspection agencies to enforce existing legal clauses for licenses to operate, for permitted emission levels, and for polluter-pays principles for the main sources of pollution.
  7. Incentivize the development of new technologies and strategies. Finding long-term solutions to air pollution will be facilitated by a mix of new technologies and strategies. These solutions will involve affordable housing options, energy, and heating infrastructure provision, and improving the affordability of mitigation measures such as cleaner coal and electric stoves. These solutions need to be part of long-term policy actions, but it is key that technologies and strategies are developed and tested now. Doing so will ensure that there is clear evidence on the effectiveness of different approaches when urban development planning requires housing or energy solutions to be scaled up. These technologies and strategies need to be financed now, and the government, the private sector, and development partners should join in finding ways to finance initial efforts, laying the foundations to attract funding for scaling up of appropriate technologies at a future point.

Long-term policy actions

  1. Redevelop urban areas and align urban planning with environmental targets. Sustainable solutions to environmental pollution require redevelopment of urban areas, part of which will ensure that people have access to good quality shelter and cleaner sources of energy, heating, and sanitation. Ongoing efforts for urban development in Ulaanbaatar need to be scaled up beyond existing focus subcenters, to ensure broader access to essential services across ger areas. Environmental issues — most notably air pollution, but also soil and water pollution — need to be put at the forefront of urban development plans.
  2. Promote livelihood opportunities in rural areas to reduce migration to cities. The best way to reduce the pressure of urbanization is to ensure that economic opportunities exist for those residing in rural areas of Mongolia. Provincial development plans have to be prepared in coordination with national development strategies, based on the comparative advantage of each province to generate economic growth and employment opportunities. This approach, although complex, is more effective than legislating to restrict migration to the cities, a policy that is difficult to monitor and enforce, particularly if people are leaving rural areas due to limited economic opportunities.
  3. Strengthen institutional capacity. Sustainably curbing air pollution in Mongolia requires an increase in implementation and enforcement capacities at all levels of the country’s administration. It also requires strong monitoring capacity through improved collection and analysis of key data, which are essential to formulating new policies and regulations to sustain pollution reduction efforts. Achieving stronger monitoring will require a combination of training, capacity building, procuring better equipment, and using technology to create and manage online data management systems.
  4. Develop sustainable transport plans. Although transport is not the major cause of air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, as urban redevelopment occurs and urban areas become more economically dynamic, the demand for transport services will increase. It is essential to develop urban transport systems that can efficiently cope with this increasing demand, without creating further air pollution. Policy actions could promote the provision of cleaner fuel in accordance with emission standards for cleaner engines, improved public transport to reduce the use of private cars, car-pooling, and restricted traffic areas.
  5. Develop long-term energy solutions for urban areas. Ulaanbaatar has growing energy and heating needs. Energy solutions that can cope with future demand should be developed now and be closely aligned with Mongolia’s environmental targets. The urban redevelopment will require energy solutions for the ger areas, including connecting these areas to reliable and clean energy and heating sources. In this context, adding new electricity and heat-generation capacity in Ulaanbaatar is critical to meeting the established policy target in 2025. One approach would be to develop cutting-edge combined heat and power plants to optimally supply affordable electricity and heating. Distributed renewable energy systems, i.e., geothermal with solar thermal and storage solutions, should also be tested for possible deployment in areas where extending the district heating system is uneconomical.

Dulguun Bayarsaikhan