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Climate Change and Mongolia: From Steppes to City

A climate case study from the steppes and the city.

One of the harshest realities of climate change is that it hits those that have very little or virtually no responsibility for it the hardest. This is, of course, true for almost all other species of this planet, endangered by  – but also for humans. The wealthiest countries are the most responsible for the damage to our planet, and the poorest countries and people are suffering the most. Bangladesh, responsible for just 0.36% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2014, is likely to lose 10% of its land area to sea level rise in the next few decades, displacing 18 million people.

Dunes of Mongolia are progressing fast

Desertification is rapid in Mongolia, where 75% of the country is concerned by the Gobi desert’s progress. (Credit: Plan A)

When actually heeded, grim projections such as these are good at triggering action, given the increasing rate at which its consequences hit us. Projections are, though, speculative to a greater or lesser degree by nature.

Projections also give room for the cognitive gymnastics that allows humans to turn a blind eye to the less appetising realms of longer-term thinking, deliberately or subconsciously.

The land of the Eternal Blue Sky

However, climate change is not scheduled to start in whatever quarter of whatever year. It is very much here and now, if not yesterday, and its impacts are being felt by people and societies all over the world. Perhaps we would need one of the world’s major cities to go underwater before we decide that allowing environmental disaster is irresponsible. By the way, even that just happened, with the decision to move the sinking, sprawling overgrown Jakarta to Borneo Island, on a location farther from the rising sea levels.

At a personal level, stories of those now living through unprecedented change in their lives and ecosystems reveal something pretty bad is going on. If you want to hear some of these stories, a good place to start is Mongolia. The landlocked East Asian country, 18th largest in the world and home to only 3.3 million people, sandwiched between Russia and China, and by all accounts a land of extremes.

The continental climate delivers winters pushing -40°C and summers that can hit the opposite, across a landscape ranging from desert and grassy step to pine forests and mountains reaching 4,300m. Humans do, however, seem to get on pretty well in all sorts of interesting places. Sapiens arrived there about 40,000 years ago and settled into Neolithic agriculture in 5,000BC, predating the famous horse-riding nomads who emerged around 2,000 years later.

Analog Nomads

Towards the end of a chaotic 12th Century, a man named Temüjin united tribes between the Altai Mountains and Manchuria. He then decided to call himself Genghis Khan – Genghis meaning ruler of the universe – and founded the largest land empire in world history. The legacy of the Mongol Empire lives on today in many of Western imaginations in which Mongolia is a distant and mythical land of nomadic horsemen hunting with eagles and roaming the infinite steppe, in a parallel universe that doesn’t contain Starbucks, surrealist meme culture and environmental catastrophe.

This is, of course, not the case. Whilst there still is no Starbucks on the territory, you can visit the capital Ulaanbaatar, get drunk in an Irish bar and blow your cash in the Bang & Olufsen store. Head out into the country and you’ll find nomad families living in the beautiful gers with a new 4X4 parked outside, the kids indoors watching TV on a solar-powered iPad and waiting to escape to the capital to become doctors.

Read also: The Urban Exodus of Wildlife

But perhaps the thing that connects the West with those on the steppe is, unfortunately not the iPad, but climate change. Aside from sea-level rise – it’s landlocked – Mongolia has the whole menu of human-induced environmental damage, from desertification to extreme weather that decimates livestock and choking air pollution in the cities (now amongst the worst in the world). The average temperature in Mongolia has risen by 2.1°C since 1940, which is double the global average.

Climate change has severely impacted the ability of nomadic herders (who make up about 30% of the population) to sustain their way of life. Rising temperatures have facilitated the advance of the Gobi desert. This gigantic stretch of dryland is steadily eating up essential pastureland, itself is already degraded by desertification. This vicious circle is decimating livestock populations every year and forcing herders into the cities. Especially severe winters, known locally as dzuds, are increasingly common and lethal. The 2009-10 dzud wiped out 22% of the nation’s livestock, with many herder families losing their entire herds and, therefore, their livelihoods.

Exodus to the City

Whilst urbanisation is a global trend and it would be incorrect to attribute the situation in Mongolia purely to climate change, there is no doubt that for many nomad families their way of life has simply become impossible to sustain. In 1999 roughly 50% of the population lived with herding as their primary source of income. Today, this figure has fallen to 25%. Without herding there really is no way to make a living out on the steppe, so the only option is to relocate to a city and build a new life.

This, of course, is easier said than done. Ulaanbaatar is now home to half of the population, and many of the previously nomadic families have set up their homes around the outskirts of the city in the growing ger camps. This new lifestyle – of a sedentary existence and urban employment (when you can) – exposes the people of Mongolia to another enormous environmental problem in the country: air pollution.

A breathless capital

Freezing winters and lack of utilities mean the off-grid ger camp residents have to burn raw coal to survive the cold. This contributes to a choking smog that develops every year. The problem is exacerbated by three coal power stations that sit within the city, alongside busy roads, apartment blocks and schools. The winter pollution now hits 14 times the global safe levels defined by the WHO and is responsible for about 4,000 deaths each year – impacting the children, the elderly and the sick the hardest.

Ulaan Baatar, a polluted urban centre

The capital city Ulaan Baatar is struggling with massive arrivals of its rural and nomadic population. (Credit: Plan A)

This bitter situation, in which our global appetite for the (fossil) fuels of environmental destruction is helping push a nomadic herder population into a city of toxic smog, is brutally symbolic of the macro and micro facets of our relationship with the planet. For many of us, the impacts of climate change still seem immaterial – more speculation than something currently lived. It is unfortunate that those in this privileged position typically reside in the nations that bear most responsibility for the problem.

Mongolia is taking steps to navigate its internal environmental issues (for example, the Ulaanbaatar Clean Air Project), but the scope of climate change, its myriad of impacts demands concerted international effort. Mongolia knows the role it must play in building a greener future, and the rest of us have a responsibility to understand the different levels of contribution nations have had to the global picture – and to listen to the stories of the people who are not waiting for their lives to be impacted, but are living it today.  

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