Preserving Mongolia’s Pastures to Counter Climate Change

Article | 6 October 2014

Carbon financing helps Mongolia preserve its grassland resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the country’s livestock population.

Talk of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming in an Asian context and it tends to conjure up visions of toxic vehicle fumes choking the region’s many megacities or belching chimneys of polluting factories. Yet in Mongolia, animal husbandry contributes significantly to the greenhouse effect.

The biggest contributors of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the country are still energy, mining, and vehicles, with carbon dioxide making up about 50% of the emissions. But methane is a close second at 40%. Moreover, most of the country’s methane (85%) is generated by animals’ digestive tracts and discharged by the animals as they pass wind or belch, while the rest is emitted from animal manure.

“Methane is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas,” says Carey Yeager, an ADB Climate Change Specialist. “In the case of Mongolia, methane emissions from livestock account for more than 90% of agricultural emissions and about a third of the country’s total emissions that contribute to climate change.” On a global scale, Mongolia’s total greenhouse gas emissions are low. But on a per person basis, the country’s emissions are relatively high because of the long, cold winter requiring a lot of heating, and low energy efficiency of older technologies.

Degrading pastures, increasing emissions

The carbon dioxide from emissions is stored in plants and soils. The oceans -- with their microscope plants in the water -- also store carbon. As forest, wetlands, and grasslands are felled or degraded, large amounts of this stored carbon are released into the atmosphere. Melting permafrost, including in northern Mongolia, also releases methane.

“Mongolia needs to focus on countering the actions that cause climate change, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions through improved grassland management, sustainable livestock practices, fuel-efficient technologies and protecting natural resources.”

- Carey Yeager, ADB Climate Change Specialist

“Mongolia needs to focus on countering the actions that cause climate change, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions through improved grassland management, sustainable livestock practices, fuel-efficient technologies and protecting natural resources, so that stored GHGs are not released into the atmosphere,” adds Yeager. The grasslands on Mongolia’s steppes evolved over millions of years with large herds of grazing wildlife, with herds migrating regularly and herd size regulated through predation, disease, and food availability. As herders domesticated livestock, and boosted their numbers in the hopes of increasing their incomes, pasture has become degraded and yields have decreased. This leads to decreased livestock productivity and decreased incomes. Grazing is a natural function of grassland ecosystems, but must be managed well for grasslands to be sustainable and support herders’ livelihoods.

When pasture becomes degraded, bare ground increases and becomes hardpack - much of the rainwater runs off with little absorbed into the soil and topsoil is lost through erosion. This process leads to desertification. Invasive species and species low in nutrients better suited to poor environmental conditions replace nutritious plants palatable to livestock.

It takes several hundred years for 2 centimeters of topsoil to form, but through mismanagement of the land, these 2 cm of soil can be destroyed in 10 years or less.

Some 70% of Mongolia’s land is degraded through overgrazing, deforestation, and climate change. More than 80% of the country’s territory is defined as highly vulnerable to climate extremes.

Managing pastureland

The answer is to improve soil quality through best practices (such as natural regeneration and re-seeding with nitrogen fixers), maintain good-quality pasture and vegetation through rotation plans and avoidance of over-grazing, and improve livestock productivity through breeding, animal health care, and fodder production. When pasture is used without rotation, it degrades and productivity declines. As a result, less carbon is stored in plants and soils. In pastures under high stress, biomass can decrease by 30-40% in a few years.

To ensure sustainability, herders neighboring one another should cooperate in establishing a rotating and resting scheme for their pastureland. Herders must also create favorable conditions for the soil to absorb and retain moisture such as re-establishing vegetation cover. Access to water for livestock is another constraint. Simple measures to increase access include piping water from rivers and springs or building small reservoirs and water tanks. Snowmelt and rainwater can be collected through building small stone dams along slopes to slow down the runoff of water.

Carbon financing and grasslands management

ADB has been supporting regional cooperation among the countries of northeast Asia to combat dust and sandstorms resulting from desertification. It has also provided technical assistance to the People’s Republic of China and Mongolia to access carbon financing to sustainably manage their grasslands.

A new report produced by ADB in cooperation with the Mongolian Government aims to raise awareness of climate change impacts on people, livestock, and grassland ecosystems and provide potential responses.

“The threats posed by climate change have significant impacts on Mongolia’s grassland ecosystems and herders’ livelihoods,” ADB Director General for East Asia Ayumi Konishi writes in the foreword. “This knowledge product identifies sustainable management practices that will increase communities’ resilience to climate change, improve environmental quality, and increase local revenue.”