In The News

Mongolia Cabinet Meets in Gobi Desert to Make Stand Against Global Warming

September 1, 2010

Under a blazing sun and temperatures rising to nearly 90 degrees, Mongolia’s Prime Minister Batbold Sukhbaatar and all 12 of his cabinet members held their August 27 cabinet meeting seated at tables and chairs set up in the sand in the middle of the Gobi Desert, 415 miles south of the capital Ulaanbaatar.

Gobi Desert in Mongolia

The Gobi Desert stretches across 30 percent of Mongolia's land. Last week, cabinet members gathered here for a cabinet meeting to draw attention to global climate change. Photo by Flickr user Munkho Gehrke, used under a Creative Commons license.

Wearing green “Save Our Planet!” baseball hats, the ministers met for one hour to discuss Mongolia’s national response to climate change and issue a statement pledging to fight against global warming.

The meeting dominated domestic news for several days and attracted significant international media coverage, as well. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon sent congratulations to President Tsakhia Elbegdorj for taking the initiative to organize the meeting.

Despite the small size of the country’s population and its rather isolated location, Mongolia seems to be positioning itself as a major player in the climate change policy debate. With alarming statistics affecting its very survival – 70 percent of Mongolian land is currently affected by desertification, last winter’s extreme weather killed nearly 20 percent of the country’s livestock – it makes sense for the government to make climate change a top priority.

President Elbegdorj first announced the idea for this meeting during a high-profile speech at the Copenhagen Climate Summit last December. He chose the Gobi Desert—widely known and extremely remote (a 15-hour drive from Ulaanbaatar) to highlight the effects of desertification in Mongolia: several years ago, this very meeting spot was arable herding land and had some vegetation. Now, the desert is expanding and sand is taking over. During their desert meeting, the cabinet, dressed in suits and ties, approved a revised draft of the National Program on Climate Change. They plan to submit the draft to Parliament for approval.

Mongolia is now Asia’s third country to capitalize on dramatic backdrops for cabinet meetings to draw attention to climate change. In 2009, to reflect growing concern for rising sea levels, the Maldives held a cabinet meeting under water with ministers wearing scuba gear and using hand signals to communicate. Shortly after, Nepal held a meeting at an altitude of 17,192 feet at the base of Mt. Everest, with ministers wearing oxygen masks, to heighten awareness of the threat global warming poses to glaciers.

South Gobi Desert is also home to some of the largest undeveloped mining sites in the world, Oyu Tolgoi (copper and gold) and Tavan Tolgoi (coal). Last year, Mongolia’s government signed a landmark, multi-billion dollar investment agreement with Ivanhoe Mines and Rio Tinto to develop Oyu Tolgoi, and plans are now being finalized for the development of Tavan Tolgoi. The mines have the potential to transform Mongolia’s economy, and expectations are high for job creation and increased growth.

With these issues in mind, The Asia Foundation’s Mongolia office is launching a new project called “Engaging Stakeholders in Environmental Conservation,” a three-year initiative focused on advancing responsible resource use and environmental conservation. Supported by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (EKN), the program follows on the Foundation’s groundbreaking Securing Our Future Program, which pioneered a multi-stakeholder approach to responsible mining and introduced water quality monitoring protocols across the country. This new program will continue to engage government, the mining industry, and civil society on the challenges Mongolia faces in encouraging much-needed economic growth while protecting precious natural resources.

This November, the second international climate summit will gather representatives from across the globe in Cancun, Mexico (most likely indoors in a climate-controlled environment) to pick up where Copenhagen left off. Nations like Mongolia, with much at stake in the outcomes, will be closely watching the global commitment to climate change that emerges from the summit.

Joshua Friedman is The Asia Foundation’s program officer in Mongolia. He can be reached at jfriedman@asiafound.org.

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