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Eurasianet

Eurasianet

Eurasianet is an independent news organization that covers news from and about the South Caucasus and Central Asia, providing on-the-ground reporting and critical perspectives on…

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Transit Trade Growth Complicates Pollution Problem in Caucasus

  • The South Caucasus region, including Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, aims to develop international trade corridors.
  • Air pollution is a significant concern in the region, with high concentrations of inhalable particles.
  • Stricter regulations, green building materials, and increased electric vehicle use are potential solutions to address pollution challenges.
Pollution

Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan intend to spend millions of dollars in the coming years developing international trade corridors in the South Caucasus. While such investment may boost prosperity, it is likely to exacerbate a pernicious environmental and health challenge: air pollution.

A lack of environmental regulation of industry – along with the explosive growth of automobiles – since the Soviet Union’s collapse means that many cities in the Caucasus are often engulfed in smog. The expansion of trade that regional leaders envision threatens to intensify a pollution conundrum: present efforts to improve air quality offer reason for hope that pollution can be contained, but the expansion of transit corridors threatens to undermine progress.

A recent report on global air quality showed that pollution, as measured by the level of air-borne harmful particles, known as PM2.5, is a cause for concern in the Caucasus, though conditions are not as bad as in Central Asia. Of the 134 countries and territories evaluated, Armenia ranked 31st in terms of having the highest levels of harmful particles in the air. Azerbaijan ranked 52nd and Georgia 62nd, according to the report.

“If we don’t do anything, it’s logical that it will grow faster,” said Erekle Shubitidze, a researcher at TbilisiState University’s International School of Economics, referring to the number of inhalable particles in Georgia’s air.

High concentrations of air pollution cause tangible harm – about 6.5 million deaths per year, according to a study conducted by The Lancet. The South Caucasus sits around the middle of the pack when compared to other countries’ air pollution levels. But that makes the issue no less deadly.

Take a walk along Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue, and you are likely to smell one of the causes: car exhaust. Some days, the sun glows meekly through a pale haze. Conditions are worse in Yerevan and Baku, according to the air-quality report published by IQAir, an environmental technology company. 

While Georgia may be better off in pollution levels than its regional neighbors, the country struggles in comparison with levels in the European Union, which a significant majority of Georgians aspire to join. In 2018, a World Bank report on Georgia estimated ambient and indoor air pollution led to 4,000 deaths. The problem is acute in Tbilisi, where smog is trapped by mountains on all sides. The government – under pressure from watchdog groups – introduced numerous improvements in recent years. There were expanded monitoring efforts, fines for excessive car emissions, and a push to adopt electric vehicles.

While the recently implemented measures have shown progress in containing harmful emissions, new pollution stress points are appearing. For example, the government has revived plans for a new Black Sea port, and a 30-mile stretch of road built by Chinese firms is nearing completion. These are part of major years-long schemes to turn the country into a trade conduit between China and Europe. Moving forward with these plans will entail more construction projects, and, ultimately, more cargo-laden trucks on roads.

Stricter regulation is needed to maintain progress in containing pollution, Shubitidze told Eurasianet. Adopting green building materials and increasing electric vehicle use would go a long way toward addressing the environmental challenges, he added.

That is something that could work across the region. In Yerevan, the nature of pollution is both different and the same. Like Tbilisi, extensive and congested road traffic and construction are the main generators of harmful emissions, but resource extraction also plays a role. Small quarries dot the outskirts of the city where workers mine for basalt and gypsum.

“It’s a very dusty city because of the mining, because of poor soil management practices,” said Alen Amirkhanian, director of the Acopian Center for the Environment at the American University of Armenia.

“Part of the problem is also that there aren’t a lot of monitoring stations and the monitoring stations are outdated [in Armenia],” Amirkhanian added.

Armenia’s capital sees the highest rates of air pollution in the region. Yerevan was the 780th most polluted city in the world between 2017 and 2023, according to IQAir, ranking ahead of both Baku, Azerbaijan (1279), and Tbilisi (1658). 

As with Georgia, Armenia has ambitions to significantly boost its role in East-West commerce. A government plan dubbed the Crossroads of Peace aims to transform Armenia into a trade hub, a key feature of which would be an inland port and free trade zone near the city of Gyumri.

Experts are finding that the scope of pollution hazards in Azerbaijan is harder to get a handle on than other states in the Caucasus. Azerbaijani government agencies, for instance, have been slow to submit data to UN officials on sources of harmful emissions. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe is pushing the country to determine its major sources of air pollution under the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution. The body said that, since 2019, “Azerbaijan has not submitted any emission inventories, a basic requirement under the Convention.”

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It is a problem that stands to get worse as the government invests in developing road and rail infrastructure to facilitate North-South trade between Russia and Iran.

Like Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia have been grappling with how to stymie the worst pollution-related side effects of these new trade corridors. But Amirkhanian, the environmentalist, noted that, at least in Armenia, the emergence of new pollution emitters seems to outpace policy solutions. “Even if you change your stock of automobiles to newer automobiles, now you have twice [as many] automobiles,” he said. “So you still have an issue. It doesn’t go away.”

By Brawley Benson via Eurasianet.org

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