Now, for the first time in history, more people live in the world’s cities and towns than in rural areas. While the role climate change plays in driving this demographic shift has yet to be fully explored, the theme of the U.N.’s World Habitat Day this year (celebrated annually on October 3) focuses on the complex relationship between urbanization and climate change.
With cities’ tall smokestacks and creeping urban sprawl, it’s easy to understand the link between urban growth and air pollution. The release of fumes into the atmosphere by industrial powerhouses and thousands of households increases the greenhouse gas emissions that directly contribute to climate change. However, the relationship between city sprawl and climate change is also seen in reverse; the impacts of climate change on rural areas, such as drought and famine, are causing many people to migrate to cities in search of work.
Nowhere is this complex relationship more evident than in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. In the spring of 2006, I was studying abroad in Mongolia’s capital, a city whose air was recently listed as the world’s second-most polluted. The World Health Organization recommends that the annual average particulate matter concentration — the particles that can cause lung damage — be less than 20 micrograms per cubic meter; in Ulaanbaatar, it has reached as high as 279.
From almost the moment my plane touched down into the pocket of smoky haze that envelopes the city, I was often seized by coughing fits from the bitter air that seeped into my clothes, my hair, even my clean bathroom towels. On my daily walk to school, I passed many street vendors wearing surgical masks as they went about their activities. Upon returning home each evening, the members of my host family would immediately change into clean “indoor clothes.”
People have adapted the best they can, but there’s really no escaping it. Health issues are a constant risk, if not a certainty.
These conditions are especially disconcerting when contrasted with life in rural Mongolia, which covers a territory more than twice the size of Texas and ranks among the least-densely populated places on Earth. For thousands of years, nomadic herders have grazed their animals on Central Asian grasslands, or steppe. This livelihood still employs roughly half of Mongolia’s population; however, overgrazing has increased desertification of the steppe, making it much more difficult for domestic animals — and their owners — to survive.
Recent studies have found that climate change is impacting the health of Mongolia’s grassland ecosystems. Over the past 70 years, the country’s average temperature has increased by more than 2 degrees Celsius, causing droughts which reduce the amount of grass cover and threaten the survival of Mongolia’s herd animals. Climate change is also thought to be a factor in the increase in severe weather conditions known as dzud, which in recent years has killed millions of herd animals, taken a toll on the national economy and pushed thousands of people to move from the countryside to Ulaanbaatar in desperate search of jobs.
As a result, Ulaanbaatar’s population has grown 70 percent in the last 20 years; it is now home to about one in three Mongolians. The city’s infrastructure has failed to keep up with this emigration, so most new residents move into the ger districts — named after the Mongolian gers, or yurts — erected on the edges of town. These districts often have limited access to running water and electricity, forcing residents to burn coal and other materials in often poorly-ventilated stoves to keep warm during the long cold winters — contributing even more harmful emissions to the atmosphere.
From an overlook on the edge of the city, the mountains in the distance are barely discernible through the smog. Continued air pollution only exacerbates climate change, which worsens conditions in the countryside, leading even more herders to give up their traditional livelihoods out of necessity and move to the city. This cycle becomes an endless attempt to escape conditions that impede healthy, sustainable living.
The crisis facing the world’s cities also presents an opportunity to recognize the real connection between urban centers and the surrounding ecosystems they rely on — and, in particular, the fresh water, food, timber and fuel that sustain them. With 50 percent of the world’s population now living on just 2 percent of the planet’s land surface, cities would seem to be highly efficient population centers. And, indeed, they very well could be. But now, with fully two-thirds of the world’s total energy consumption coming from urban activities, we can make great gains toward addressing climate change and improving lives and livelihoods by minimizing the impact of our cities.
One of the first and most important steps we can take is to make the true value of the natural goods and services that power our cities more economically visible, and ensure that this value is a key component of smarter development.
Molly Bergen is the managing editor on CI’s communications team.