By Nominbolor Khurel

In response to the rapidly escalating problem of desertification and the threat of climate change, Mongolia has embarked on a signifcant environmental project. By 2030, the country aims to plant one billion trees, commiting at least one percent of its GDP –  approximately USD 168.1 million – annually to combat climate change and deforestation. This initiative is part of Mongolia’s broader strategy to reduce the global impact of climate change and to bolster their contribution to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). President Khurelsukh Ukhnaa officially launched the initiative, mandating a yearly financial commitment to fight climate change and desertification.

Climate change in Mongolia

Mongolia has a fragile ecological environment with an extreme continental climate; such conditions make the country highly vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation. It is one of the countries most impacted by climate change, with an observed temperature increase of 2.3 degrees Celsius, and an annual precipitation decrease of 7 percent over the past 80 years. Over 76.9 percent of Mongolia’s vast 1.6 million square kilometers of land suffer from desertification and grassland degradation. This concern is compounded by climate-induced disasters, droughts, floods, dust storms and wildfires – the duration and intensity of which are increasing with climate change. According to government figures, half the population has been affected by climate change, with extreme weather events and natural disasters displacing thousands of people who rely on agriculture and animal husbandry for a living. Climate change has also impacted the physical environment in Mongolia, as diminishing surface water reservoirs and recurring droughts continually contribute to large-scale desertification. Such consequences are projected to intensify in the future.

Mongolia’s tree planting initiative: One Billion Trees campaign

Trees play a pivotal role in combating desertification, reducing soil erosion, and absorbing carbon dioxide. Desertification in Mongolia is caused by grassland degradation where land is unable to support plant life due to overgrazing, deforestation, and climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, protection and restoration of the world’s forests is critical for limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

In September 2021, at the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, the President of Mongolia, Khurelsukh Ukhnaa, announced the launch of a nationwide campaign to plant one billion trees by 2030 to fight desertification, deforestation, and food insecurity. This initiative aims to address various environmental and socio-economic issues caused by climate change and to support people’s livelihoods in creating a healthier environment.

Launched in October 2021, the campaign has materialized into a major national policy. The campaign involves a wide range of activities such as planting seedlings, creating nurseries, and providing training and education to local communities. The initiative also focuses on creating green jobs and promoting sustainable agriculture practices.

The Mongolian Government has outlined a three-phase plan for the campaign: the preparatory phase (2021–2024), the intensification phase (2024–2026), and the sustainable implementation phase (2027–2030). Achieving the campaign’s goal could reduce desertification-affected land by 4 percent, increase forest coverage to 9 percent from the current 8 percent, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 11 percent which is equivalent to 600,000 tons.

Since its launch, the campaign has gained significant domestic and foreign support. Governors from 21 provinces and Ulaanbaatar, have pledged support to plant over 20 million seedlings each. Large mining companies led by Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi, Oyu Tolgoi, Energy Resources, and Erdenet Mining Corporation, have committed to plant over 600 million trees – more than 50 percent of the total trees to be planted by 2030. With a combined effort, 41.5 million trees have been planted as of October 2023, according to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Given the relatively short duration of the project until 2030, this number looks way below its target to plant more than 200 million trees annually. Albeit, the Ministry expressed its satisfaction with this year’s results and vows to accelerate the afforestation and reforestation efforts in the coming years.

Out of a total of 19.5 trillion MNT needed for the campaign, 13.7 trillion MNT will come from enterprises and the state budget, while how the remaining 6.5 trillion MNT will be sourced is still unclear.  

The One Billion Trees campaign targets sand and dust storms that impact not only Asia but also North America. China – Mongolia’s southern neighbor – has been suffering from sandstorms originating primarily from Mongolia’s Gobi region. Recent large-scale dust storms that frequently hit northern China in the spring has further urged the cooperation between the two countries on preventing and controlling sand and dust storms. Mongolia’s collaboration with China to combat desertification involves setting up a sand stabilization pilot area in Mongolia and establishing the joint China-Mongolia Desertification Prevention and Control Center, which focuses on tree planting in the Gobi Desert and border areas.

Looking ahead 

Although the One Billion Trees campaign has attracted widespread media attention throughout the country and support from domestic and international organizations, the road ahead is long, and there will be many hurdles.

Mass tree planting, especially in arid regions, to combat desertification has found little success worldwide. The Great Green Wall program was an enthusiastic climate change solution to help prevent desertification in northern China, but it became a wide scale forest failure. In Africa, another ambitious project to build a green wall across the width of the continent has also faced setbacks.

Perhaps the most important objective for the success of the One Billion Trees campaign is to find a perfect balance between planting the right trees in the right place and changing cattle grazing. Besides, the scale of this campaign will require continued state and local funds for successful implementation, as well as a change in the nomadic mindset of Mongolians. In addition, the campaign initiated by President Khurelsukh should continue beyond his term of office, which ends in 2027, and should become a long-term action-based policy to combat climate change issues affecting Mongolia.

Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank Dr. Julian Dierkes and Mr. Jangar Tsembel for being a peer reader, and Mr. Hesu Song, a Princeton in Asia fellow in Mongolia, for being a peer reader and the copy-editing.

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