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Breathing shouldn’t make us stupid

By Elizabeth Bryning

Published Friday December 21, 2012

Ah, winter in Ulaanbaatar. I walk out of my apartment building and am hit in the face with a combination of stinging frost and acrid smog. You can tell when winter has really arrived in UB because the smog closes in around you like a shroud, particularly in the ger districts where the haze hangs down to the ground and lurks around your ankles.

Smog seems to be an accepted fact of life here in UB. I find this attitude a bit puzzling, especially on days when my head starts to ache from the smell of coal. I don’t understand why people aren’t constantly griping about the pollution and putting pressure on the government to improve the air quality.

Some efforts are being made to raise awareness of the issue among the Mongolian people, such as the admirable “UB Air Quality Info” page on Facebook. But it seems that precious few people or groups in Mongolia are actively seeking changes. At least, there are no reports in the English-language media about such actions. Yes, I know the government is trying to address air pollution issues. But I don’t think the government and people of this country are doing enough.

As we all know, the majority of the winter air pollution comes from the ger districts. But a lot also comes from the endless flow of cars on the crowded streets and a great amount of pollution also comes from those ever-burning coal-fired power plants.

Some projects have been initiated to try to reduce the pollution produced in the ger districts (cleaner-burning stoves) and several initiatives have begun recently to reduce the traffic – and the pollution it causes (restrictions on car use and new buses). But given the immense scale of the air pollution problem in UB, the impact of the efforts so far is as noticeable as a single grain of sand in the Gobi desert. Much more action is needed. Furthermore, people need to “think outside the box”, or at least outside the ger.

I recently heard that the government has plans to build apartment buildings for people in the ger districts. That’s more like it! This would not only provide people with housing and sanitation, it would reduce the number of pollution-producing stoves. But to be effective in cleaning UB’s air, the government must take the concept one step further: ensure the new buildings are energy-efficient and are powered by wind and solar energy, NOT by the burning of coal.

There is a wind farm under construction, and a solar farm too, not far from UB, so there is some possibility of replacing coal-fired plants with renewable energy sources, but relatively little investment has been made in wind and solar energy so far. The government has largely ignored renewable energy and is still pouring trillions of Tugrik into the coal-fired power stations. The government is even building yet another coal-fired power plant in UB, despite the enormous financial losses being made on the existing ones. Instead of selling coal overseas for a good price, the government is subsidizing the power plants by selling coal to them at a price below the cost of extracting it from the earth and transporting it to UB. They are of course doing this to ensure that electricity remains cheap (and available) for the people. But while this approach means cheap energy in the short-term, in the long-term it is killing the people of UB.

Coal-fired power plants are toxic. The burning of coal in gers and in power plants produces many hazardous substances. Some of the most dangerous are nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, particulate matter (PM) and mercury. Pollution from nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide and PM is causing respiratory and cardiac diseases and cancer, often leading to death, particularly among children and the elderly.

Meanwhile, the mercury emitted from coal-burning power plants is making us stupid. Perhaps the reason why we are all still sitting in this stew of smog is that after just a few days here in UB we become too dim-witted to think of anything that could solve the air-pollution problem. Mercury significantly damages human brains, particularly the brains of young children (as their brains are still developing). Oh, and mercury also damages our kidneys, livers and nervous systems, and it causes birth defects and affects our reproductive capacity. Yay.

Mercury and the other pollutants produced by burning coal not only get into our lungs, bloodstreams, brains and other organs, these pollutants build up in our waterways and soils, so therefore get into the food chain and go on contaminating our bodies and killing our brain cells for decades after we’ve breathed mercury-laden air. Oh happy thought.

It is clear that the coal-fired power stations need to go. The government needs to stop building coal-burning power stations and start building more wind and solar farms. Yes, I’ve heard all that drivel about renewable energy “by its nature” not being able to provide a constant supply of energy. Hogwash. That nonsense is just coal industry propaganda.

An overwhelming majority of scientific studies attest to the reliability of renewable energy sources. In November this year the University of Delaware released the findings of its latest study and reported that, through using hydrogen storage systems, renewable energy (wind and solar) “could reliably power a large electrical grid 99.9 per cent of the time” at the same cost as today’s electricity prices. Gee… 99.9 per cent of the time! That is a lot more reliable than the UB coal-fired power stations, which seem to only be able to provide energy about 75 per cent of the time.

And then there’s the issue of climate change. If the government isn’t interested in cleaning the air, perhaps it is interested in keeping its promises to reduce greenhouse gases? A switch to renewable energy offers Mongolia a chance to do that.

But I suspect the Government of Mongolia does not want to hear positive things about clean, renewable energy. The government has signed agreements with large corporations to build more polluting and deadly coal-fired power plants. With all the corruption in this country, I can’t help but suspect that the politicians and businessmen would rather get “commissions” from the investors in fossil fuel technology than promote renewable energy.

So we can’t wait for the politicians to make changes of their own accord. They need a shove. If the people of UB want clean air, they must take action. If it were my country, I’d be writing letters to the government calling for the end of coal-fired power plants and demanding renewable energy, protesting outside the parliament building, voting for green (and clean) politicians, and raising awareness of the issues among my friends and families. These little actions add up to a lot of pressure on the government. If enough people take a stand, the citizens of UB can bring a wind of change to this city. I just hope we’ll all still be alive to see it.

Short URL: http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=2337

Posted by on Jan 5 2013. Filed under Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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