More Efficient Residential Heating in Kazakhstan Can Help with Cleaner Air and Improved Health

Health impacts and premature deaths from air pollution in Kazakhstan’s cities of Almaty and Nur-Sultan are primarily caused by fine particles emitted as a result of coal burning in households and coal-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plants, says a new World Bank report released today. The new study “Clean Air and Cool Planet – Volume II: Integrated Air Quality Management and Greenhouse Gas Reduction for Almaty and Nur-Sultan” proposes priority cost-effective measures that can simultaneously address air pollution and decarbonization in the country’s largest cities.

The new city-level study builds on a previous World Bank report, which provided the first national-level approximation of primary sources of air pollution in Kazakhstan. That report was based on research by the World Bank conducted in cooperation both with the Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources of the Republic of Kazakhstan and the Akimats of Almaty and Nur-Sultan. The first national report offered recommendations for reduction of air pollution and maximizing synergies and managing trade-off challenges with climate mitigation. The new city-level report provides high-level roadmaps for cost-effective integrated air quality management (AQM) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction in Almaty and Nur-Sultan. 

The report released today argues that coal burning in households with small boilers and stoves is the largest source of air pollution in Nur-Sultan and second largest in Almaty, contributing 10 and 15 µg/m³ (30% and 25%) to total annual PM2.5 (particulate matter 2.5 microns in size) exposure respectively. According to the World Health Organization’s updated air quality guidelines, annual average PM2.5 levels of 5 µg/m³ and above pose increased risks of illness and even premature death.

Coal-fired CHP plants also contribute significantly to PM2.5 exposure in Almaty and Nur-Sultan, but their relative contributions differ by city and by plant. In Nur-Sultan, about 7 µg/m³ (about 22 percent) of annual mean population exposure to PM2.5 originate from coal combustion in its CHP plants. In Almaty, contribution of large combustion sources dwarfs other sources and causes about 25 µg/m³ (about 40 percent) of annual mean population exposure to PM2.5. Most of this exposure comes from the old coal-fired CHP-2 plant without proper emission control equipment.

As Kazakhstan aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, it will need to identify a cost-effective balance of measures to reduce both air pollution and GHG emissions. International experience shows that the least-cost decarbonization and air pollution reduction strategies may differ in prioritizing pollutants, emission sources, and interventions. Therefore, the study offers a roadmap of air pollution reduction measures until 2030 while facilitating a long-term phase out of fossil fuels and making the cities better prepared for a low-carbon future.

Priority low-cost measures include replacing residential coal boilers and stoves with more efficient and/or cleaner ones in detached houses, enforcing a ban on household combustion of garbage and plastics, implementing road traffic improvements, such as redirecting truck transit to a ring road, and upgrading the district heating distribution infrastructure.

The largest potential for reducing PM2.5 exposure comes from more efficient and cleaner residential heating, which need to be complemented by emission reductions from coal-fired CHP plants. Replacing decentralized coal use in single-family homes, apartment buildings, and commercial and public buildings, with district heat or natural gas should be considered a priority. Newly built single-family homes should be subject to tighter energy efficiency standards for buildings.

In Almaty, retrofitting of the existing highly polluting coal-fired CHP plants with enhanced particulate matter (PM) filters is the most cost-effective option. In Nur-Sultan, replacement of the more advanced coal-fired CHP-1 with combined cycle gas turbines, complemented by additional electricity imports from the national grid to compensate for periodic load imbalances are suggested as the most economic option.

“Kazakhstan’s path towards decarbonization is not just ambitious but also highly nuanced – it will require major investments and a careful balancing of the needs of its regions and population groups,” noted Jean-Francois Marteau, World Bank Country Manager for Kazakhstan. “In this regard, making air pollution reduction and climate mitigation measures attractive to private enterprises and households including through fiscal policy reforms will be key.”

Fiscal policy reforms could bridge the incentive gap – the difference between what is efficient to society and what is attractive to firms and households under the current market conditions. The study modeling recommends the level of a carbon tax that will make cleaner fuels financially attractive in comparison to coal and thereby reduce the need for subsidies for switching to cleaner fuels. Annual revenues from the carbon tax could support the subsidies needed (contributing to just transition or supporting vulnerable households to use cleaner heating alternatives) and/or leverage private financing for both air quality improvement and GHG reduction.

“An integrated approach that aligns the country’s commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 with air pollution reduction targets will require air quality standards revised in line with global best practice, incentives, resources, and enhanced capacity for municipalities as well as robust collaboration at the national and local levels,” noted Kseniya Lvovsky, Practice Manager, Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy Global Practice in Europe and Central Asia.