ULAANBAATAR, MONGOLIACoal is everywhere in Mongolia’s frigid capital. It sits beneath the towering smokestacks of power plants in piles as big as football fields. Drivers haul it through town in the open beds of pickup trucks. Vendors stack yellow bags of the stuff along roadsides, and jagged pieces spill from metal buckets in the round felt yurts where the poorest families burn it to keep out the bitter cold.
The smoke in Ulaanbaatar is at times so thick that people and buildings are visible only in outline. Its smell is acrid and inescapable. The sooty air stings throats and wafts into the gleaming modern office buildings in the center of town and into the blocky, Soviet-style apartment towers that sprawl toward the mountains on the city’s edges. On bad days, handheld pollution monitors max out, as readings soar dozens of times beyond recommended limits. Levels of the tiniest and most dangerous airborne particles, known as PM-2.5, once hit 133 times the World Health Organization’s suggested maximum.