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Mongolia News / Others / February 15, 2016

Ulaanbaatar and Climate Change

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In this essay, I will endeavour to explore how frontier markets cities such as Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia are particularly vulnerable to climate change and how, through various measures of adaptation and mitigation at varying scale, the issue can be partially tackled. A number of potential strategies will be presented at a National, Municipal and Community level.

The Impact of Cities on Climate Change

Excessive emissions of Green House Gases (GHG) amongst which CO2, are covering the atmosphere in a blanket which reflects and traps the heat of the sun which leads to a gradual and constant warming up of both the air and seas. This has disastrous effects on the earth’s ecosystem and is a contributing factor to the higher frequency and impact of natural disasters experienced in the past decades.

GHG are made up largely of methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, their atmospheric levels haves expanded exponentially since the early 1800’s due to anthropogenic activities such as greater fossil fuel combustion and intensive land use during the industrial revolution. At that time, carbon dioxide was measured at 280 parts per million (ppm) while it is currently measured at 400 ppm (Co 2 Now, 2015). While scientists and economists may argue on the causes and extent of climate change, there is no doubt that average global temperatures are rising. However, humanity can play an important role in mitigating this impact of time.

While the impact of climate change is global and no country is immune to worsening climatic conditions, wealthier nations suffer greater absolute monetary damage while poorer countries have a greater vulnerability to climate events due to lower infrastructure investments, a lack of disaster planning and poor co-ordination of efforts. “Developing countries are likely to bear 75% of the human costs of damages produced by climate change” (World Bank, 2010). It is also within lower-income countries that the greater loss of life and disturbance to livelihood is experienced. As more developed nations transition away from fossil fuel heavy industries their consumer habits do not change leading to greater outsourcing of carbon producing activities to countries with fewer regulations and a lower cost to life. “Whilst Europe has been deindustrialising its own production, it has not decarbonised its consumption” (Helm, 2012).

Urban areas and their residents are the most affected by climate extremes and variability due to their high population density and proximity to natural landmarks such as rivers, seas, volcanoes or mountains. Cities within low-income countries are often the most badly damaged as they are generally overpopulated, suffer from inefficient emergency services, have high informal density and poor access to many urban areas. The most at-risk amongst those populations are the urban poor and the elderly who suffer premature deaths due to extremes of temperatures, in particular as exasperated by the “urban island effect” (The University of Chicago Urban Network, 2012).

It is often argued that cities in low-income countries have more pressing challenges than climate change. Poverty, malnutrition, slave labour, corruption, a lack of education, crumbling infrastructure, unstable political systems and inequality are important challenges that should not be belittled but climate change is a global phenomenon that will impact all citizens in unequal measure. Avoiding the issues today only exponentially increases the future damage costs to mitigate its impact.

Over 80 Billion USD is expected to be spent in climate change adaptation strategies per year globally, over 80% of which will be spent in urban areas (The World Bank and Urban Development & Local Government, 2010), this presents an opportunity to implement real change for the construction of sustainable communities through well managed and designed urban spaces.

While cities are often considered the primary contributors of environmental degradation, they also present the most attractive and efficient solutions to climate change in the form of adaptation to the new challenges as well as mitigation of emissions. Cities, with their ability to innovate and adapt are more efficient in dealing with climate change than rural areas and are in many ways well adapted to mitigate climate change through public transport, efficient use of resources and utilities such as electricity and water. The goals are global in nature but localised in their understanding and in the application of the potential solutions. In order to examine the scales of action required in tackling climate change in an urban environment, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia has been chosen as a case study.

The Ulaanbaatar Case Study

Mongolia is a relatively small frontier economy with a 12 Billion USD GDP and an economic dependence on the extraction of commodities for the benefit of its southern neighbour; China. It has the world’s lowest population density (Wikipedia, 2015) with its 1,565,000 sq. km landlocked land mass (the 7th largest in the world) inhabited by only 3 million citizens, over half of which live in its capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Over 87% of its land mass (Trading Economics, 2015) is occupied by steppes, forests and other forms of carbon sink. Despite this, the country is ranked 8th out of a 100 countries for Global Climate Risk between 1993 and 2012 (Kreft and Eckstein, 2013). The country experienced a rise of 2.07°C rise in its mean temperature over the past 70 years (Trankann, 2015), more than global averages and above the targeted 2°C cap set by COP21. While cold climate countries such as Mongolia can benefit from climate change through a milder temperature range (and thus lower energy requirement), the drawbacks far outweigh the potential benefits. It increasingly suffers from rampant desertification, compromised biodiversity and reduced precipitation resulting in a loss of livelihood for the pastoral herders of the country as well as jeopardising its efforts to diversify its economy through agriculture.

Mongolia’s rural nomadic population, which employs approximately 40% of the workforce (Luxbacher and Goodland, 2012), is most at risk through the destruction of its biodiversity. Climate change studies carried out in 2009 and 2014 show that Mongolia’s increasingly fragile ecosystems and its reliance on pastoral animal husbandry lead to a socio-economic development which is vulnerable to climate change (Mongolia 2015). Nomads have over centuries developed a capacity to read and predict the weather through tiny changes in the atmosphere and small climatic signals. This is essential to time their migrations and decide where they should move. With climate change, they have lost this ability and partly as a result have suffered considerable ‘zud’s’ (when a significant percentage of the country’s heads of cattle perish due to a weather event) in the past decade leading to loss of life, property and a move towards greater urbanisation.

While Mongolia is a victim of the elevated global production of CO2, it is also a net contributor to the problem. Its anthropogenic activities include power generation through inefficient coal power plants, poor wastewater treatment, unregulated landfills and a low cost of fuel for transportation with no viable alternatives such as rail or boat transport. The carbon sink that constitutes its forests and steppes is being destroyed at a rapid pace through illegal logging and mining activities.

Ulaanbaatar is ranked as one of the most polluted cities on earth with PM2.5 levels of up to 516 exceeding WHO guidelines by over 740% to be declared extremely hazardous (World Health Organisation, 2014). This air pollution is generated by obsolete coal powered stations that heats and powers the city and also by the informal housing settlements surrounding the city known as the ‘Ger Districts’ that use inefficient individual coal powered stoves for heat generation. These levels of GHG in a concentrated area over the city not only contribute to climate change but also present serious consequences to the health of the inhabitants leading to premature deaths, respiratory diseases, and loss of income and productivity.

As Ulaanbaatar grows into a modern city, it’s citizens are demanding contemporary lifestyles that lead to greater fossil fuel usage and lock-in higher level of consumptions, its primary vulnerabilities stem from its geographic and climatic location, socioeconomic conditions, dependence on natural resources and its fragile ecosystem.

Solutions Needed

A range of actions are needed to reduce the country’s vulnerability to an increased frequency in natural disasters and extreme weather patterns. While the solutions are global, they can be adapted to Mongolia’s circumstances. They should not be considered as separate interventions but need to be examined for the impact as a whole on key development priorities and its feedback continuously integrated into the design, monitoring and evaluation of public policies and programmes.

Mitigation and adaptation are considered the two key strategies used in addressing climate change. While mitigation is focused on the causes of climate change, adaptation aims to reduce its impact. Mitigation includes elements such as increasing the carbon sink as well as the reduction of emissions of GHG. Adaptation is an “adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities”(IPCC 2001). Grothmann and Patt (2003) argue that adaptation should go further and include a ‘socio-cognitive-behavioral process’ which not only adapts behaviour but also changes the perceptions of risk proactively, long before the requirement for adaptation exists and not reactively once the danger is already present.

‘Mitigation’ and ‘Adaptation’ also differ in terms of time, spatial and sectorial scales. Spatially, mitigation is an international issue which benefits globally while adaptation is a local development which benefits those directly impacted in that location. From a time scale perspective, mitigation is a global necessity over the long run with long term effects but since there is a lag of inertia between mitigation action and impact on the global climate change system, adaptation has become a necessity in the short run (Parry et al., 1998) as it has short-term effects on resilience. It is no longer a choice of a mitigation strategy over an adaptation strategy as both are essential in reducing vulnerabilities to climate change.

To be effective, action is required at different scales, from international cooperation to the local community including national policy formulation, municipal design, private sector engagement, NGO participation and individual awareness construction.

As part of the COP21 agreements, Mongolia has committed to mitigate the national emissions of GHG through a reduction in the production of carbon dioxide in its energy, agricultural and construction sector of 14% by 2030 (Mongolia, 2015), further, Mongolia will seek to improve its ability to adapt to increased desertification, changing precipitation and temperature levels, loss of water and other natural resources through a series of short and long term adaptation measures.

International Strategies

Mongolia was an active participant at the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1993, its Kyoto Protocol of 1999 and the Paris COP21 agreement of 2015. As a result, Mongolia has recently established the Overall Strategy within the National Action Plan for Green Growth as part of its Millennium Development Goals. This includes a number of annual forums, study trip exchanges and transnational agreements with local partners to discuss climate change strategies.

As part of its international policy plans, it intended to introduce a carbon tax and a carbon exchange platform since 2011 but has so far failed due to political apathy, business group lobbies and difficulties in measurement.

Ulaanbaatar benefits every year from approximately 750 Million USD in donor-funded urban-focused aid, technical assistance and project loans (Anderson 2014), these funds can continue to be used for the same purposes but include a strong climate change agenda which would inform the project designs. Both the ADB and the World Bank are currently reviewing their project guidelines while the EBRD has limitations on financing energy projects that are fossil fuel dependent (EBRD 2015).

National Strategies

Nationally, the Government of Mongolia could introduce a series of taxes and subsidies in order to drive changes in consumer habits leading to both mitigation and adaptation drivers. For instance there are currently no taxes on high emission luxury vehicles leading to their widespread adoption. Fuel is heavily subsidised and regulated by the Government leading to a lack of incentive to switch to more fuel efficient vehicles or to public transport. Tariffs could be introduced in order to favour greater ‘local-isation’ of products in order to reduce transport emissions.

The most significant mitigation strategy that the country could adopt is to use the existing traditional energy sources, such as coal, more efficiently as well as develop new sources of renewable energy. Coal is used as a primary source of energy because it is plentiful but can be substituted. In particular, there is considerable scope to replace fossil fuels by other clean energy resources such as renewable energy resources. (hydro, solar, wind all have considerable potential). A review of energy pricing would also be required since the state currently subsidises energy costs to end-consumers by up to 85% making alternative sources of energy economically unfeasible.

The state should also invest into the R&D of technologies that can be adapted to be used within the Mongolian context of extreme cold climate where solar panels for example function with poor efficiency.

Municipal Strategies

Cities have the ability to effect great change in climate change policies since they target vast amounts of people over a restrained geographic area but also offer more tangible strategies since they present a more efficient level of communication between decision makers and the public. One of the greatest impacts cities can have on climate change is through clear policy making on urban design, transport, land policy and densification as well as building codes. For example, creating extensive green space to reduce the “urban heat island” effect, developing the public transport grid, and creating bike lanes alongside bike sharing programs could effectively mitigate emissions.

The municipality can also employ adaptation strategies such as regulating the construction of glass cladding in skyscrapers that are energy inefficient, thereby lowering costs and making the buildings more resistant to extreme temperate changes, while also allowing for lower energy requirements. Furthermore, allowing buildings to self-regulate energy use as well as improving insulation is essential.

As construction has continued on the city’s floodplains along with increased flooding in recent years, the municipality must now invest in costly flood barriers along the Tuul river in order to reduce risk impact in addition to developing an advanced drainage system along the primary transport axis of the city.

Community Strategies

The development of community focused strategies within Ulaanbaatar is essential to building resilience to climate change. In order to allow community members to help themselves and build social capital, they have to be provided with actionable information on strategies developed by the municipality.

Within a mitigation framework, the communities close to forests and wooded area should be given responsibility for the sustainable development of those forests so that they may protect them, stop their destruction and gradually grow them into sustainable revenue generation enterprises. This would increase the carbon sink potential of the country while creating economic opportunities for local communities. Within the ger districts, improvements in both the efficiency of the stoves (and the fitting of filters) as well as the quality of the coal provided would allow for mitigations in emissions.

The recycling of aluminium, paper, and plastic is informal and poorly carried out, yet could be both a source of income for the community as well as a means to reduce new production requirements, allowing for more efficient use and re-use of those materials.

Private Sector Strategies

A number of opportunities exist for the private sector in both mitigation and adaptation strategies. For instance, methane could be produced from the three solid waste disposal sites surrounding Ulaanbaatar, this could be used to power district heating boilers or large industrial concerns, replacing coal. There are also considerable opportunities in the retrofitting of insulation on the older building stock, installation of grey water recycling stations, development of individual renewable energy solutions and improved heating solutions.


While Mongolia is gradually coming to the realisation of the long-term dangers it faces, like many developing nations it lacks the political, financial and human capital to enact real change in the short-term. Corruption, a lack of education on the issues, nepotism and high staff turnover at all levels of power further slow down the process. A lack of funding can be resolved in part through a series of PPP’s and donor funded technical assistance programmes but the expected costs of 6.9 Billion USD required for mitigation and adaptation measures make achieving the stated goals financially unlikely (Mongolia 2015).

Emerging cities such as Ulaanbaatar are focused on economic growth alone but as long as growth remains linked to increasing GHG, the risks from climate change will increase. ‘Climate-smart’ policies that can further development while reducing vulnerability to climate events and open the way to a sustainable low-carbon ‘green-growth’ are essential. In order to achieve climate-smart growth, it is important to act now before the options open to decision makers are gradually closed off and necessary sacrifices are made greater. It is also important to act across all the different scales of action possible so as to maintain a low overall cost and be inclusive of all stakeholders. New solutions must also be sourced through R&D so that energy can be harnessed and stored efficiently, so that the agricultural sector can feed an increasing population and so that growing cities can be developed intelligently.

A key development that cities such as Ulaanbaatar must undertake is a commitment to monitoring and improving the transparency of its climate change actions so that all stakeholders can participate in the process. As urban citizens become aware of climate change and its impact, they will become more active in policy development and demand greater action from its official representatives.

The scales of adaptation and mitigations strategies that Ulaanbaatar can undertake are complementary to each other. The more emissions of GHG that are mitigated, the lower the need for adaptation to climate change impact but “reliance on adaptation alone could well lead to a magnitude of climate change to which effective adaptation is only possible at very high social and economic costs” (Klein, Schipper, and Dessai, 2003). It is clear that the priority for Ulaanbaatar is to undergo an energy revolution which would not only mitigate emissions of GHG but also dramatically improve public health, create private sector opportunities and improve productivity of its citizens. The key for adaptation required across all scales hinges on creating awareness of the issues in the public sphere and in changing behaviours.


  • Anderson, R. (2014) Too Many Plans: A Study of Rapid Urbanisation and its Management in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. MSc in Urban Planning Thesis. Harvard University.
  • Co 2 Now (2011). PPM levels counter. Available at: (Accessed: 2 January 2016).
  • EBRD (2015) Face to Face to Christopher de Gruben, 10th December 2015.
  • Grothmann, T. and Patt, A. (2003) Adaptive Capacity and Human Cognition. Available at: (Accessed: 20 December 2015).
  • Helm, D. (2012) The carbon crunch: How we’re getting climate change wrong – and how to fix it. 2nd edn. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • IPCC (2001) Climate change 2001. Synthesis report. Cambridge University Press
  • Klein, R. J. T., Schipper, L. E. and Dessai, S. (2003) Integrating mitigation and adaptation into climate and development policy: Three research questions. Available at: (Accessed: 2 January 2016).
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  • Luxbacher, K. and Goodland, A. (2012) Building Resilience to Extreme Weather: Index-Based Livestock Insurance in Mongolia. Available at: (Accessed: 2 January 2016).
  • Mongolia (2015) INDC – Intended Nationally Determined Contribution submission by Mongolia to the ad-hoc working group on the Durban platform for enhanced action (ADP). Available at: (Accessed: 2 January 2016).
  • Parry, M., Arnell N., Hulme M., Nicholls R. and Livermore M., (1998): Adapting to the inevitable. Nature, 395(6704), 741.
  • The University of Chicago Urban Network (2012) How has climate change affected cities?. Available at: (Accessed: 4 January 2016).
  • The World Bank (2010) World Development Report 2010 – Development and Climate Change. Available at: (Accessed: 4 January 2016).
  • The World Bank and Urban Development & Local Government (2010) Cities and Climate Change: An Urgent Agenda. Available at: (Accessed: 22 December 2015).
  • Trading Economics (2015) Land area (sq. Km) in Mongolia. Available at: (Accessed: 1 January 2016).
  • Trankann, B. (2015) UN Resident coordinator- conference of parties (COP21) [Press Release], Conference of Parties (COP21). United Nations, Mongolia. 14 December 2015.
  • Wikipedia (2015) ‘List of countries by population density’, in Wikipedia. Available at: (Accessed: 3 January 2016).
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