Life with Pollution vs. Life in Poverty: A No-Win Dilemma

Curbing fossil fuel use can help alleviate air pollution. But in Ulaanbaatar, a shift from fossil fuels proved to increase class divisions and inequality

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Mongolia is known for its natural beauty, sprawling steppes, and untouched land. Life in Ulaanbaatar, its capital city, is a completely different world. Toxic particles, made deadly from frigid temperatures, often invade the packed streets of Ulaanbaatar. Migratory urbanization puts a strain on Mongolia’s energy infrastructure, whose reliance on coal makes Ulaanbaatar one of the most polluted cities in the world. As a result, clean air is a privilege, not a guarantee; for many, this means an increased risk of dangerous lung diseases such as pneumonia. Those who are especially impacted are citizens in the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder, unable to purchase valuable bottles of canned oxygen or filter systems reserved for the one percent. When the pollution grew too strong, Mongolia made a bold promise: ban coal.

In theory, eliminating the use of coal is a promising solution to our current environmental crisis. Of course, such a swift change is bound to cause instability, but the long-term benefits seem to outweigh the costs. In Mongolia, solving one problem introduced another with much greater short-term impacts. After Ulaanbaatar banned raw coal in 2019, the government introduced a cleaner, albeit more expensive energy source: coal briquettes. Briquettes are more efficient and produce less pollution, but for many families, the price tag was unbearably high. To prevent the hefty fine that comes with using cheap but banned raw coal, some impoverished communities turned to illegal logging. Others rejected the government’s plans and continued to use easily accessible but dirty energy sources such as rubber. The result is a country at odds: the collective majority fighting for basic human rights, and the government fighting for environmental cleanliness and countrywide decarbonization. Both cannot win at this unbeatable game.

Ulaanbaatar’s unique urban layout also plays a role in the energy divide. The capital city is home to more than two-fifths of Mongolia’s population, but unofficial ger districts lie just outside the dense metropolis. Gers are wooden yurts that lag behind the infrastructure of more modern apartments, leading to concentrated areas of poverty. To survive the arctic Mongolian winters, residents in ger districts are the ones who rely most on raw coal and are most affected by the government’s coal ban. Therefore, ger districts produce the vast majority of pollution in Ulaanbaatar, and the uneven distribution of clean air has more than just environmental impacts. High AQI levels in ger districts pose significant health risks and frequently force school closures. UNICEF recently described Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution as a major concern for children due to “lower lung function” and “[increases] in fetal death.” A coal ban is a double-edged sword for most ger districts. It’s an important initiative that can resolve some of the effects of pollution, but alternatives to raw coal are simply not accessible without financial support. 

Fulfilling the guidelines laid out in Paris Agreement is necessary for our world to sustain its potential for life. But for many countries, a drastic shift from fossil fuels can increase class divisions and inequality. From Ulaanbaatar and Mongolia, we can learn that a solution to the energy and environmental crises must also address poverty, urban segregation, and economic disparities. At the core of our battle with energy is a battle with ourselves: how can everyone get equal access to renewable and affordable energy? Sustainability is intertwined with social justice, and until Mongolia’s government addresses both, Ulaanbaatar will continue to stay separated by class and by the severity of its pollution crisis.

Evan Qiang

Undergraduate Student
Evan Qiang is an undergraduate student double majoring in biochemistry and physics in the School of Arts and Sciences.