Toward a Transition Away from Coal

By Sandeep Pai and Julian Dierkes

In November 2018, Tsenguun T and Aldarsaikhan T wrote a guest post describing the Mongolian podcast scene. Since then, more podcasts have sprung up, for example, recent guest post co-author Boldsaikhan S is involved in the “54 Cups of Coffee” podcast.

No surprise then, perhaps, that Julian has been wanting to talk about Mongolia for quite some time, having enjoyed his podcast debut on UBC’s Meiji 150 podcast to talk about portrayals of the Meiji Restoration in Japanese history textbooks.

So, here it is, a discussion between Julian and Sandeep that Tsenguun was kind enough to host on the Sustainable Mongol podcast:

After introducing ourselves in the episode, we spend some time talking about the report of the German “Coal Commission” that provides a blueprint for a move away from coal and what opportunities this might represent for Mongolia. Most significantly, as China commits to de-carbonization of its energy, Mongolia may well have significant opportunities for energy export to China derived from renewable resources. In this context, the Gobi Desert provides obvious opportunities for large-scale deployment of solar panels.

To reach its potential Sandeep drew on global trends to point to three central challenges that Mongolia might face in its transition:

  • Infrastructure needs/cost
  • Storage and transmission
  • Political inertia

Coal-Free Mongolia in 2040

We finished our discussion with our initial list of “action items” for Mongolia that might move it toward a vision of a coal-free Mongolian in, say, 2040.

1. Aid/investments from international financial institutions for expansion of existing grid, storage
The infrastructure that would enable the export of energy is hugely expensive. Not only would it require a massive upgrade of Mongolia’s grid, but this grid would have to be connected into a Chinese if not Northeast Asian grid. The construction of renewable energy “power plants” can occur on a smaller scale and does hold some promise of profitability which is why that is happening to some extent already. But the grid will likely have to be financed by public investments and given Mongolia’s fiscal situation, this will require international financing.

2. Investments toward utility-scale solar and/or wind power plants in Gobi Desert: begin training people, develop engagement and assessment processes
If Mongolian policy-makers can be persuaded that there is a promising future in renewables and if that future seems likely to only be 5, 10, 15 years away, foundations should be laid now. That means that education and training can pivot in this direction, but governance structures also need to be developed. Some of these structures might come from the mining industry, for example large-scale solar power plants might also require “local-level agreements” like they have been mandated for mining projects.

3. Ambition to become a net exporter of electricity to China
To realize the potential of renewables, there needs to be political discussion and ultimately commitment to a strategy that sees energy exports to China as a sustainable economic path in the future. Obviously, this would further exacerbate Mongolia’s dependence on China, so that may be a difficult step to take politically and will require more engaged debates.

4. Maximize opportunities for electrification to combat air pollution in Ulaanbaatar and other towns
Currently, it seems like massive electrification of Ulaanbaatar and other towns is the most direct way to combat air pollution. But if that electrification is powered by coal, then the positive impact is limited to local air pollution. Instead an upgrade to the grid and the development of renewable energies will combat local air pollution and offer economic promise.

5. “Just transition” plan to create good jobs by development for clean energy
Some resources that have been focused on mining coal will have to be re-deployed toward renewable energies. That is not an easy process around the world with the displacement of jobs, private and public investments sunk into coal, political lobbies in place, etc. A strategic approach to this transition will ease the difficulties that the transition will bring with it.

About Sandeep

Sandeep Pai is a PhD student & Public Scholar at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability at UBC. Much of Sandeep’s research focuses on finding ways to make a global energy transition away from coal. Prior to UBC, he completed an Erasmus Mundus Master of Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management, jointly taught at Central European University, Hungary, Lund University, Sweden and the University of Manchester, UK. He also holds a Bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism. Professionally, he worked for several years in South Asia as an award-winning journalist, writing for national and international newspapers and magazines. Recently, he co-authored a book “Total Transitions: The Human Side of the Renewable Energy Revolution

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots and tweets @jdierkes
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