Mongolia cleans up its energy act
The government in Mongolia is taking steps to clean up its reputation when it comes to the environment, with a green development policy planned, a huge wind farm opening and the Ministry of Environment and Green Development confronting the mining industry. However, balancing growth with green objectives is still proving a challenge.
On June 24, the minister of environment and green development, S. Oyun, unveiled a development policy that identifies objectives towards 2030 and economic measures to be taken until 2020. The programme is part of the government's Green Civilisation strategy.
The ministry, the first in the world to have a portfolio of "green development", has already taken steps since its creation in 2012 to protect certain lands and water, and it has placed a moratorium on new mining exploration licences.
In June the ministry further displayed its growing clout by announcing the closure of a key route for coal transport to China, citing environmental damage. Specifically the ministry said it would shut down the Tsagaan Khad Customs stockyard, through which all coal from the Tavan Tolgoi mine must pass on its way to China.
Just a week earlier, Oyun and M. Sonompil, the minister of energy, led the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the $122m Salkhit wind farm. Salkhit covers an area of 12,000 ha and has an installed capacity of 50 MW. With a potential to meet about 5% of electricity demand, it will provide some 100,000 residents with daily electricity – equal to a decrease of 18m tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions each year. The government has signed a power purchase agreement with Clean Energy, Mongolia’s first wind energy company, agreeing to pay 9.5 cents a KWh.
By 2020 the government has targeted 20-25% of the energy mix to come from renewable sources; coal supplies about 80% of the country’s energy.
"For the government of Mongolia, green development is not a choice; it is something we must do," the president of Mongolia, Ts. Elbegdorj, told a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) official in May.
However, the country has met obstacles in pursuing its green agenda and still plans to build three coal-fired power stations with a combined capacity of 1650 MW in the next decade. Meanwhile, gold, copper and coal mining continues to take its toll on the environment, with negative side effects including polluted water, soil compaction and harm to vegetation.
Smog from burning coal has choked Ulaanbaatar this year. In 2012 the World Health Organisation named it the second-worst city for air quality behind Ahvaz in western Iran. Residents use coal to heat homes when winter temperatures plunge to -34°C.
International observers say that the despite the country's resource-based, breakneck growth, its leaders have to act now to avoid long-term harm to the environment.
"Mongolia has a fundamental choice between a development path that triggers increasing social exclusion, environmental degradation and significant economic costs or one that recognises that vast mineral wealth and abundant potential for clean energy can be engines for poverty eradication, decent jobs and sustainable development," UNEP's executive director, Achim Steiner, told New Scientist in June.
While the government's steps will improve the county's green credentials in investors' eyes and contribute to reducing carbon emissions, it needs to develop a wide-ranging set of subsidies and incentives to get business leaders and the public on board.