Nestled within the Tuul River valley and embraced by the southern Khentii Mountain Range, Ulaanbaatar (UB), Mongolia’s largest city, presents itself as an arena where nature’s forces wage an unrelenting battle against human resilience. The capital city is an icy crucible, with bone-chilling winters that plummet temperatures to an astonishing -40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 degrees Celsius). Mongolia, often hailed with the celestial moniker of “The Land of the Eternal Blue Sky,” paradoxically succumbs to a veil of pollution and energy struggles during the winter months, obscuring the true shade of the cherished vista.
To understand the root of these issues, MIT students from classes 22.S094 (Climate and Sustainability Systems: Decarbonizing Ulaanbaatar at Scale) and 21A.S01 (Anthro-Engineering: Decarbonization at the Million-Person Scale) visited Mongolia to conduct on-site surveys, diving into the diverse tapestry of local life as they gleaned insight from various stakeholder groups. Setting foot on Mongolian soil on a crisp day in January, they wasted no time in shaking off the weariness of their arduous 17-hour flight, promptly embarking on a waiting bus. As they traversed the vast expanse of the countryside, their eyes were captivated by snow-laden terrain.
That is, until a disconcerting sight unfolded — thick smog, akin to ethereal pillars, permeated the cityscape ahead. These imposing plumes emanated from the colossal smokestacks of Ulaanbaatar's coal-fired power plants, steadfastly churning electricity and heat to fuel Mongolia's central and district energy systems. Over 93 percent of the nation’s energy comes from coal-fired power plants, where the most considerable load is caused by household consumption. Nevertheless, with nearly half of Ulaanbaatar’s population disconnected from the central heating networks, one of Mongolia’s most significant sources of pollution comes from coal-burning stoves in the residential settlements known as the ger districts. Over the past three decades, since the democratic revolution in 1990, Mongolians have grappled with escalating concerns surrounding energy provision, accessibility, and sustainability.