The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has called for partners to work together and support the Kyrgyz Republic’s transition away from coal, as the country’s capital today ranks as number two in the world for air pollution despite a mild winter.
“Air pollution is a matter of life and death. Yet, while air pollution can be invisible, it is not invincible. Coal is not cool. We need to get rid of it and plan a way to a better and healthier future by working with different stakeholders,” said Bruno Pozzi, UNEP’s Europe Director, at a media event in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called on non-OECD countries to end coal use by 2040. Despite only having one million inhabitants, a heavy dependence on coal means that the Kyrgyz capital experiences severe and hazardous air pollution comparable to, and sometimes worse than, megacities such as New Delhi. This continues to be the case despite abnormally mild temperatures this winter meaning that less coal is needed for heating. Bishkek today ranks as second in the world for air pollution.
During a media event on 8 February, the Government of the Kyrgyz Republic said it aims to put in place a monitoring system to better understand sources of air pollution in the country’s capital. It also reiterated its aim to reduce coal use and increase take up of alternatives, including hydropower. “This is a transition to energy-efficient, energy-saving technologies to reduce carbon emissions and harmful air pollutants,” said the Deputy Minister of Natural Resources, Ecology and Technical Supervision of the Kyrgyz Republic, Kanat Sadykov.
Air pollution is by far the most important cause for pollution-related deaths in the Kyrgyz Republic, accounting for 4,000 premature deaths in 2016, for example.
At the event, UNEP also honoured the role of civil society in driving environmental change by officially presenting Kyrgyz environmentalist Maria Kolesnikova with her UNEP Champion of the Earth award for her work raising awareness and advocating for clean air as head of MoveGreen. The NGO has been a pioneer in installing air quality monitoring sensors and showcasing clean technology alternatives to coal in the Kyrgyz Republic.
“This prize supports us in the fight for clean air in Bishkek. Nobody used to talk about air pollution here, but awareness is growing. This problem can be solved,” said UNEP Champion of the Earth Kolesnikova, who was named Champion of the Earth laureate for Entrepreneurial Vision in 2021.
MoveGreen demonstrates alternatives to fossil fuel-based heating, including solar-powered boilers. “A large amount of heat is currently lost by poorly insulated homes,” she added. “Whatever type of heating is used, energy efficiency must be a priority.”
Alternatives to coal face barriers
Some of the main sources of air pollution in Bishkek include the use of coal in homes for heating, a coal-fired heat and power station, the city’s municipal dump, and vehicles. More than 70 percent of people living in the Kyrgyz Republic use coal to keep their homes warm during winter. While gas pipelines have recently been installed across Bishkek, high connection and running costs mean the switch to gas is out of reach for many.
“It would be great if gas could be cheaper,” said Askar Dushembiev, who lives in Bishkek’s Akorgo district and relies on poor quality coal to keep the cold at bay for his six household members. Using gas would cost an additional USD 150 each winter — which can be a very substantive amount for families with limited incomes, and comes in addition to the cost of installation, ranging from USD 1,000 to 2,000.
Severe drought in 2021 means that less water — some of which is exported to neighbouring countries — has been available for the Kyrgyz Republic’s hydropower dams to produce electricity.
Children are disproportionately exposed to the risks associated with air pollution, and pay for this exposure throughout their lives. Breathing polluted air at a young age can affect how lungs grow, prevent the brain from developing properly, and increase the risk of diseases such as asthma. This is a major generational challenge for the Kyrgyz Republic, where over half of the population is below the age of 24.
Yet there are strong signs that the country’s youths see clean air as a priority.
“We need to stop burning coal and use gas, but we need the government to make this cheaper,” says a twelve-year-old pupil in Bishkek’s School 84. In the meantime, “we only open the window for a few minutes each morning,” his teacher, who suffers from asthma, said.
Immediate actions can be taken to address air pollution in Bishkek. These include introducing regulations on coal quality, installing better filters for chimneys at private homes, and awareness-raising among vulnerable groups on what they can do to protect their health. UNEP will continue to support the Kyrgyz Republic in working for a healthier future.