Steppes Under Strain

18 Nov 2016

Mongolia is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change on earth. Saving it calls for urgent action.

By Beate Trankmann, United Nations Resident Coordinator and UN Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Representative

With the conclusion of the COP22 climate summit in Morocco, there is new hope for the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change, including Mongolia. During the conference, 50 countries signed up to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2030-2050, while more than 100 countries had ratified the Paris Agreement by the end of the summit, representing 77% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

With 40 percent of its 3 million people dependent on herding, centuries of nomadic life in Mongolia are increasingly under threat by environmental degradation and climate change. In the last 70 years, temperatures in Mongolia have risen by more than 2 degrees centigrade - almost three times faster than the global average.

The consequences are visible across the nation. According to official data, advancing desertification has turned one quarter of its land to desert. In total, 70 percent of land is considered degraded. Rising temperatures, summer droughts and a surge in livestock numbers, leading to overgrazing, add to the strain. In addition, melting glaciers in the country’s west have lost up to a third of their ice in recent decades, reducing water sources further.

With ecosystems unable to recover and their livelihoods under threat rural populations are increasingly turning to the cities in search of alternatives.  50 percent of the country’s population already lives in Ulaanbaatar, putting public services under pressure. This is most acutely felt in the ger districts where half of the capital’s population resides without access to clean water, sanitation and central heating. Temperatures of up to minus 40 degrees centigrade drive ger district inhabitants to burn coal in individual stoves for warmth. This in combination with the coal fired plants that power the remainder of the city’s central heating system with comparatively outdated technology stands for 80 percent of the emissions responsible for Ulaanbaatar’s notorious winter haze.  Mongolia’s capital has one of the highest levels of winter air pollution in the world, at up to 34 times the World Health Organization’s safe limit negatively impacting the health of residents and creating costs for the public health system. The country’s per capita carbon foot print ranges amongst the highest globally.

To address these challenges, Mongolia - under the Paris agreement - has committed to cutting emissions by 14 percent and increasing the use of renewables – such as solar and wind – from 7 percent currently to 30 percent by 2030.  These targets have been reflected in Mongolia’s Sustainable Development Vision 2030 approved by Parliament earlier this year which translates the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into national context.

Decreasing the reliance on fossil fuel and coal for energy generation by switching to renewables needs to go hand in hand with reducing energy consumption to lower Mongolia’s high per capita carbon foot print. With heat loss from poorly insulated buildings being a key driver of energy consumption much can be gained by investing in energy efficient housing and construction in addition to shifting to green, less energy intensive appliances and technologies in industrial production and households. Together with the Global Environment Facility the UN is working with the Government of Mongolia to introduce new building codes, construction technologies and designs for energy efficient buildings. In addition, three UN agencies are collaborating under the UN Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD), to protect Mongolia’s boreal forests as carbon sinks to offset emissions.  

With countries already affected by climate change, adaptation is also key to adjust to our changing environment. In Mongolia, this includes reducing and adjusting water use to manage water scarcity and maintain water security, which is a key objective UNDP’s Ecosystem Based Adaptation (EBA) project. It will also mean finding different approaches to herding and animal husbandry that allow to reduce herd sizes over time to ensure the land can recover from grazing while protecting the livelihoods of herders.

The UN stands ready to support Mongolia in realising sustainable and inclusive development which is envisioned in both the SDGs and Mongolia’s SDV. Under the new UN Development Assistance Framework 2017-2021, the UN plans to contribute USD 79 million towards these objectives.

To achieve the SDGs concerted efforts are needed by Mongolia, and by bigger nations, as well as the private sector and consumers. The Morocco climate summit has seen countries renewing their commitments to combat climate change. It will be vital for all now to honor these commitments. Only then can we break the cycle of environmentally-induced inequality and poverty.

Our shared prosperity and our planet can only be protected if we find sustainable pathways. Climate change is real, and the impact is already being felt in Mongolia. The time to act is now. 

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