The burning of coal in Ulaanbaatar (UB), the capital city of Mongolia, has created a public health emergency, with wintertime air quality that regularly exceeds 100 times the recommended daily average concentration, with dire health effects for a population of 1.5 million people. Exposure to air pollution at such levels causes severe health effects for residents, particularly for children, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations. According to a recent study by National Center for Public Health and UNICEF Mongolia, the air pollution is linked to extremely high rates of childhood asthma, pneumonia and other chronic respiratory infections, high levels of miscarriage, preterm birth and childhood mortality, impaired cognitive development and a host of other long-term health impacts (National Center for Public Health 2018).
These health challenges are felt most acutely in the city’s quasi-informal ger districts—low-density areas that consist of hundreds of thousands of traditional nomadic dwellings, known as “gers” in Mongolian, or “yurts” in Russian, and self-constructed wood-frame houses—where families rely on burning raw coal in their homes as their primary source of heat in the frigid winters. With nearly sixty percent of the population unserved by adequate electricity or heating supply, environmental inequity in the city is directly tied to energy infrastructure, with consequences that are particularly dire for children, the elderly, and other vulnerable populations.
The challenge of reducing UB’s coal dependency is also intertwined with the design of infrastructural systems that the city has inherited from its Soviet-era past—primarily its reliance on centralized coal-fired power plants to provide both steam district heating and electricity—as well as the particular patterns of urbanization that have shaped Ulaanbaatar’s recent development. The difficulty of transitioning from coal is made harder by the fact that winter temperatures in Ulaanbaatar regularly reach -40°F.
This paper analyzes the challenges of moving the city’s heating supply to electricity and the challenges of decarbonizing the city’s electricity production. It then lays out three possible speculative scenarios that suggest pathways that the city might take toward a post-coal future. Each potential future depends on concrete planning and policy moves and results in a distinct urban form, pattern of infrastructure, and energy access profile