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Ulaanbaatar’s clean air is everyone’s responsibility

March 5, 2010

Gailius J. Draugelis, Senior energy specialist

Ulaanbaatar is already the coldest capital of the world, but it need not be its most polluted.
When Ulaanbaatar’s one million citizens breathe, their lungs act like air filters, catching and storing harmful dust. Scientists call this dust “Particulate Matter” (PM).  If PM is smaller than 10 microns or “PM10” it can cause severe respiratory illnesses. These illnesses can lead to increased absences from school and work and even premature death.
Based on a recent World Bank joint study with the National University of Mongolia and the National Public Health Institute, PM10 measurements over the past three years in UB are two - five times higher than Mongolia’s Air Quality Standards. Five to ten times higher than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines and three to seven times higher the European limits.  In wintertime daily PM10 average concentrations reach at least seven times Mongolian standards, four times the most flexible WHO targets for developing countries and 14 times higher than WHO’s global guidelines.
These numbers confirm what we all know, breath and can see with our eyes – Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution is a terrible problem all year round, but in wintertime it is extremely harmful.
Cities that have successfully reduced air pollution ask their citizens to change some kind of environmentally unhealthy behavior.  They also set air quality standards and limit emissions from major polluters, impose penalties and provide assistance to reduce costs of compliance.
In most cases, it takes a long time for politicians, citizens and scientists to agree on how to reduce air pollution.  This is because common beliefs about causes and cures of air pollution may differ from science, which by its nature is itself sometimes interminably slow to produce data. That means people’s expectation about pollution reduction may be unrealistic. This will lead to a waste of resources and especially disappointment, which every one – wants to avoid.
According to the World Bank’s joint research with the National University of Mongolia and the Norwegian Air Research Institute, the main source of the pollution is – dust.  If you average measurements over the whole year, ger heating contributes to about 40%, while dust contributes to about 50% of the measured annual average concentrations of PM10.  Dust comes from unpaved roads, lack of vegetation in UB, ash from coal stoves, power plants, boilers and the desert.  However, the vast majority of pollution in wintertime, when it is really severe, comes from ger heating.
According to the World Bank’s joint research, if PM emissions from ger heating (stoves, stoves with heating walls, low pressure boilers) are reduced by 50%, the annual average concentrations of PM10 will be reduced by about 1/3rd. This would produce a clear and visible result and reduce illnesses, but it would obviously not eliminate the air pollution problem.
Practical solutions, based on science and testing, can be developed.  For example, the Bank’s joint research (as well as fuel and stove testing conducted by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) shows a high correlation between peaks in daily air pollution and peaks in emissions from the ignition and re-loading phases of the burn cycle for heating stoves (and low pressure boilers). These peaks comprise a significant share of overall PM concentrations in winter, therefore it may be practical to focus on the ignition and re-loading phases of the burn cycle.
But there is no magic bullet for reducing air pollution. It will require a combination of changing technologies and behavior.  Short term solutions are likely to come from using a combination of new stoves, boilers, fuels and insulation. People may be asked to change how they light and re-load fuels.  Surely, apartments are a long term solution – but who will pay for the apartments, maintenance fees, electricity, heating, water, sewerage, appliances, etc.?    Some solutions are currently beyond reach even with reasonable subsidies.
A socially acceptable, technically feasible target for reducing emissions would greatly help. Knowing the goal will help design programs to achieve it.  According to World Bank study estimates, Mongolian standards for PM10 can be reached if emissions from power plants, heat only boilers, ger heating and dust could be reduced by 80%. However, the costs may be too high to make such a massive reduction in a short period of time.
The Government, under the leadership of the National Committee on Coordination, Management and Oversight of Activities of Government Agencies with Regard to the Implementation of the Government Policy on Air Pollution Reduction, has now successfully mobilized several donors to help reduce costs of preparation and implementation. There is high confidence the next winter will see the first, large-scale demonstration projects in the ger areas.  But this is not enough.
The support and understanding of all UB residents is needed because solutions are not easy and they require cooperation. Many in civil society, especially the poorest in ger areas, are likely to be asked to change how they heat their homes.  Open discussion will be needed to keep citizens informed and to let government know what is and is not working – and suggest improvements.
Ulaanbaatar’s clean air is everyone’s responsibility.