World Environment Day was held on June 5, 2013 and I was in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia for the official launch of the event. The United Nations Environment Programme selected Mongolia as the host country for WED2013 and for the past few days I've been fortunate enough to see some of the many reasons why.
To understand what makes Mongolia special in 2013, it is important to understand its past. Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire in the 13th century and is still talked about today, but for much of the previous 100 years, Mongolia was controlled by communists, only seeing their own revolution in 1990 after the fall of the Soviet Union.
As its neighbor to the south, China, has undergone rapid development in recent years, Mongolia, now with a market economy and multi-party parliamentary political system, has found itself in a unique opportunity to develop incredibly rapidly. With rapid development, however, can come rapid pollution, environmental degradation and climate change inducing carbon emissions. The question that has UNEP, the United Nations Development Programme, and investors, businesses and environmental groups interested is what kind of development will Mongolia choose?
From what UNEP and the Mongolian leaders have said and shown the world this week, right now the answer is thankfully green, sustainable development.
Mongolia President Elbegdorj Tsakhia, who was honored at WED2012 as a UNEP Champion of the Earth, spoke about how hosting WED2013 was an opportunity to introduce Mongolia to the world.
He insisted that the idea that development is a choice between what is good for the economy or good for the environment is a false one.
Tsakhia highlighted the long tradition of respect for the environment among Mongolians, including their reverence for mountains and the land and worship of the sky and heavens. He expressed concerns about how climate change was increasing desertification and how pasture grazing was degrading the land, as some 40 million head of livestock live off of land that should support just 30 million. He noted how mining and exploration licenses had been reduced from covering 46 percent of Mongolia to just 12 percent.
And he demanded that the parliament finalize Mongolia's national park policy to adopt best practices from the United States' park program.
Charles Akhimien, the winner of the TreeHugger and UNEP blogging contest, also wrote a nice recap of the President's speech and other events of the day.
Following the president's speech, we were invited to the top of the State Palace to see a ceremonial ger or yurt that the president uses for important meetings. While the additional things he said during that short meeting were interesting, I was most struck by the fact such a meeting place even existed. It was a stunning room and it helped me appreciate how important the nomadic herder lifestyle, which is dependent upon and centered around the ger, is to Mongolians. Understanding this, it helped me see why Mongolia is so committed to making their development future as sustainable as possible.
I will be writing more in a few days about the concrete steps Mongolia is taking to execute on this vision for sustainable development, including the launch of the first wind farm in the country and an important animal reintroduction project that is helping to strengthen a part of Mongolian culture.