climate change environment

Why does Mongolia have such a high carbon footprint?

Last weekend I was doing a talk at Ely Cathedral, and I showed a slide of per capita carbon emissions around the world. Somebody asked a question that I’ve had a few times now – what’s going on in Mongolia?

Located between China and Russia, Mongolia is easy to spot on this map. It’s the only country in bright red, which suggests that it has the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world. They come in just short of 27 tonnes per person – that’s twice the emissions of the average American and five times that of an average Brit. Not what you might expect for a middle income country. So why is that?

The reason that Mongolia jumps out on the map is that we’re dealing with carbon intensive industries averaged across a small population. Mongolia is the world’s most sparsely populated country, with 3.3 million people spread across its vast territory. You could fit Germany into Mongolia three times over, but Mongolia’s entire population is about the same as Berlin’s. As you can imagine, this skews per capita data a little.

Still, Mongolia must have a huge environmental footprint, and it owes it to livestock, coal, and climate change itself.

First of all, livestock. Nomadic herding has been a traditional way of life in Mongolia, and that continues today. According to a recent census, the country has over 70 million head of livestock. There are more horses and cows than there are people, and there are 10 goats and 10 sheep for every person. That has significant emissions, both from the animals themselves and from pasture land.

Then there’s coal. Mongolia has sizeable reserves and coal is cheap, so it’s the primary source of the country’s electricity. Though there are plans for hydropower and wind power, it has been hard to compete with coal. It provided 98% of electricity a decade ago, and that has only dropped to 87% today. Any clean energy gains have been overtaken by the expansion of coal use as the country has developed and urbanised.

Despite the carbon emissions from these two sectors, the biggest contributor to Mongolia’s outsized carbon footprint is actually land use change, at 44% of emissions. This comes mainly from forests, which are under threat from creeping desertification, and from an increase in pests that have damaged trees. Both of these are climate related, which means that the effects of climate change are one of the biggest sources of Mongolia’s emissions.

This combination of factors means that Mongolia’s per capita emissions are flashing red, but it would be a mistake to think that the average Mongolian is over-consuming. It remains a middle-income country and around a third of the population are living in poverty.

What can Mongolia do about it? Transitioning away from coal is going to be important, and investment in renewable energy and hydropower needs to ramp up considerably. There are huge opportunities for wind power, and as there are already grid connections to both Russia and China, Mongolia is well placed to eventually be an exporter of clean energy.

With 44% of emissions from land use and a very real threat from climate change, the government has also prioritised forest protection and tree planting. There are schemes to combat the pest invasion, and a national plan to plant a billion trees, which I might come back to another time.


  1. A friend has a dim view of planting trees for helping cool the earth and trap carbon, because of the fact that they die. Generally, I respect his opinions, but surely he must be wrong about this? I mean, of course trees die, but while they live (and they may live for decades if not hundreds of years) surely they have a very positive impact in that they offer shade and cooling through transpiration…am looking forward to reading any future posts you may do that address this topic!

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