Issue 2, 2019. April-May

   

BREATHE A SIGH OF RELIEF: GEORGIAN GOVERNMENT ACTS TO IMPROVE AIR QUALITY

Back in 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) released its annual report on health statistics for its 194 member states, which ranked Georgia, for the first time, as the country with the deadliest air pollution. Though this data was later proved wrong - WHO researchers had used outdated numbers - it certainly moved Georgian policy makers to action.

Since then, Georgian policy makers have introduced a number of green policies to reduce the country's criteria pollutant levels, and things appear to be moving in the right direction. Tests conducted by the National Environmental Agency earlier this year show that most pollutants in the atmosphere in Georgian cities are largely within normal levels, with several exceptions warranting concern.

Though more recent data of Georgia's mortality rate due to air pollution is lacking, the 2018 WHO health statistics confirm Georgia's mortality rate due to air pollution is is still higher than that of all the EU member states, and if the government wants its EU membership bid to be taken seriously, still further action is needed.


The main issue

The sector needing the most immediate attention in Georgia is transport, and the government has taken notice.

The form of pollutant most responsible for pollution deaths is particulate matter (PM), which is commonly released by fuel combustion in vehicles. Since cities are both high in population and traffic density, they are especially vulnerable to the health consequences of PM.

In Georgia the majority urban population combined with underdeveloped traffic regulations and public transport has driven up PM emissions, and with, it the number of pollution deaths.

Back in 2009, the National Report of the State Environment cited motor transport as one of the leading causes of ambient pollution in Georgia, accounting for a staggering 90% of emissions in urban environments.

While the transport sector is a huge contributor to pollution worldwide, in Georgian cities it is disproportionately responsible. For comparison, the transportation sector accounted for 30% of emissions in NYC in 2016.

Though there were early indications that reforms were needed in the transport sector, results have been lagging. The 2016 UN Environmental Performance Review (EPR) of Georgia states emissions of Total Suspended Particulate Matter (TSP) has either decreased or remained stagnant in all sectors but the transport sector, which increased by 208% from 2008 to 2013.

In 2009 the National Report of the State Environment reported that private vehicles were preferred in Georgia as a consequence of the country's underdeveloped public transport system. Despite recent efforts to promote public transport, the problem persists.

The UN report shows that in a period of just 10 years, the number of wheeled vehicles on the road in Georgia increased three times - from 319,461 in 2004 to 1,021,261 in 2014.

In Tbilisi and other large cities, the combination of poor traffic management, underdeveloped road infrastructure, and private vehicle usage has led to frequent traffic jams resulting in increased vehicle emissions.

To make matters worse, the majority of vehicles on the road in Georgia are old, diesel engine cars.

The 2016 UN environmental performance report of Georgia shows that 70% of the vehicle fleet is older than 15 years old.

As in most of the developing world, diesel cars are preferred in Georgia because they are more fuel efficient, delivering 25 to 30 percent better fuel economy than their gasoline counterparts. Though this means diesel cars are superior in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, all but the most modern diesel engines release higher levels of PM.

Meanwhile low quality fuels on the Georgian market damage catalytic converters, the control device that reduces the toxicity of gases and pollutants. Because replacement is pricey (on average $1,000 USD), owners will simply have them removed, resulting in higher emissions from the vehicle.

The importation of second hand vehicles combined with Georgia's relaxed transport regulations has had disastrous consequences for the country's air quality because vehicles were not tested for safety and emissions most cars in Georgia did not meet US and European standards. Until the new mandatory inspections are completed, cars with elevated emission levels and damaged or removed catalytic converters will continue to be on the road.


The good news

While transport sector emissions are undoubtedly a problem, Georgia's low air quality reflects more on the country's recent economic boom and growing middle class than on the government's delayed response to the crisis.

Since the 1990s there has been a dramatic increase in household income, which means families are purchasing more domestic appliances and private vehicles, consuming more energy, and thus producing more waste and emissions.

Economic expansion combined with a relaxed environmental policy has led to a number of environmental issues in Georgia, but this trend is not anomalous in the developing world, where economic development is frequently observed alongside decreased air quality. While the Georgian government was not in a position to invest in air pollution control during the country's economic ascent, it is now following the path of other developing powerhouses, such as China, towards the implementation of stricter environmental control.

Georgia's reasons for investing in air pollution control are many. The rate of mortality and health related issues by air pollution is high in Georgia, and the threat it poses to worker productivity, capital development, and tourism is not insignificant. In 2015, WHO and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimated premature death and disability from air pollution cost Europe 1.6 trillion USD in economic losses.

Apart from this, Georgia has political incentive to invest in pollution control. EU membership is on the table for Georgia if the country meets the key criteria for accession outlined in the 2015 EU Association Agreement, which calls on the Georgian government to reduce emissions through improved vehicle standards and fuel quality.

In response to these demands Tbilisi City Hall issued the Environmental Strategy 2015-2020 to oversee the development of the capital into a modern, eco-friendly city by EU standards. As part of the strategy, City Hall is planning to regulate the transport sector more strictly in order to improve air quality in the city.

In a 2018 public statement, Mayor Kakha Kaladze acknowledged the transport sector issues outlined in the UN report, specifically the high number of private vehicles in the city, the importation of foreign vehicles and the age of the vehicle fleet. Some of the measures Kaladze proposed were drastic:

"Ninety percent of [private cars] are too outdated...The first thing to be done alongside technical inspection is to halt the import of old cars. This might trigger some dissatisfaction, but this is a step that has to be taken. The matter concerns the health of our kids."

Though this proposal is still on the table, other measures have already been taken to encourage the use of public transport and reduce the amount of vehicle emissions in the nation's overly congested capital.

With a grant from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), 100 new buses were added to the city's fleet in 2018 and another 700 more will be added during the next four years. French public transport firm SYSTRA is also expected to complete the restructuring of the city's bus routes by July 2019.

Earlier in 2019, Kaladze announced paid parking would be introduced in Tbilisi to regulate traffic flow.

In a statement he stressed the underdevelopment of the city's transport sector relative to European standards.

"Zonal parking was established in all developed European and overloaded cities long ago and is one of the efficient measures to put the transport system in order."

The Tbilisi Municipality will begin the new experiment on Kote Apkhazi Street, and will gradually introduce zonal parking in other busy areas of the city.

Batumi and Kutaisi have also introduced their own respective environmental plans to combat increased traffic congestion and emissions in the city.

In Batumi key measures include re-organization of on-street parking, bus route optimization, mini-bus replacement, and the development of spaces for pedestrians and cyclists.

Meanwhile the US has supported the development of a Clean Energy Program in Kutaisi, where the transport sector is particularly underdeveloped. One of the immediate initiatives of the program is the rehabilitation of roads, which are almost entirely in disrepair. In 2018, the Road Department announced the construction of a new bypass road in Kutaisi. When it is finished traffic will be directed outside the congested city, and to the highway. In response to the environmental demands of the AA, the Parliament of Georgia has introduced a number of legislative policies in support of clean technology. These include the abolishment of import VAT for electric motorcycles, mopeds and electric cars, the prohibition of low quality petrol and diesel in Georgia, and the introduction of mandatory vehicle inspections.

Already these changes have proven themselves effective. In 2018 the Environment Protection Supervision Department collected 240 fuel samples without prior notice, and found that all samples met the requirements of the 2015 decree.

Meanwhile Georgia's nationwide step-by-step vehicle inspections have been progressing according to plan. Already a total of 21,276 vehicles have been inspected as of 19 January 2019, and all other private vehicles over 8 model years will be inspected by December 2019. So far these inspections have been successful in getting vehicles on the road up to European standards. Over 97% of vehicles with violations were repaired in order to pass the second round of inspections.

What's next

Fortunately for Georgia, vehicle PM emission levels are among the easiest to control.

Across the developed world there is a downward trend in vehicle PM emissions due to the modernization of vehicle technologies and transportation systems. The European Environmental Agency reports emissions of PM decreased by 28% in Europe in just eight years, and if Georgia adopts similar measures air quality will significantly improve.

Though the Georgian government has made steps in the right direction, the implementation of green policies is only half the battle.

Scattered parking meters and a few isolated bicycle and bus lanes will not be enough to encourage urban vehicle owners to leave their cars parked at home.

The UN report concludes that in order for public transport to become attractive to citizens, the government should explore other forms of electric public transport, such as trolleybuses and trams, introduce road pricing in congested areas, and - above all - inform the population of the health effects of road transportation pollution.

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