Over the last half-century, air pollution has become an increasingly critical problem globally. The number of harmful emissions connected to human activity has been rising constantly, and, in many locations around the world, the concentrations of individual pollutants are higher than the recommended safe levels. Elevated emission levels are associated with various harmful effects, such as damage to human health and well-being, decreases in productivity, a reduction in land prices, and equally significantly global environmental issues like climate change. Moreover, a notable share of air pollutants (varying by type) is still emitted by the transport sector.
WIDELY ACCEPTED APPROACHES FOR DEALING WITH TRANSPORT SECTOR AIR POLLUTION
One way to address air pollution – as the OECD suggested to the Georgian government – is a combination of fuel economy regulations and fuel taxes (International Transport Forum, 2008). The purpose of such regulations is to impose certain restrictions and norms on vehicles to reduce their impact on the environment. These regulations lead to the effective reduction of fuel costs for medium and heavy freight transport, maximum fuel savings, and additional research and development into new and existing energy-saving technologies, thus resulting in reduced energy consumption. While this mixed approach is potentially associated with greater expense in reaching its targets, compared to the alternative of purely focusing on taxation, it is likely to trade off these costs against political expediency.
Experience from the EU also suggests several additional sustainable development strategies for the transport sector with significant health co-benefits; including fostering electric bicycle traffic and “active” modes, and the promotion of public transport. Developing and improving the quality of pedestrian and bicycle paths encourages citizens to walk or cycle, which acts as a supporting factor for a healthy lifestyle and reduced car usage. However, these developments also require infrastructural support, namely: improvements to aesthetic features and attractiveness; access to green and recreational spaces; good lighting; and road safety measures. Similarly, the promotion of public transport seeks to substitute private vehicles with furnished public transport, such as the subway and buses, which thereafter reflects lower urban air pollution levels and additional climate and health benefits. Nevertheless, increasing public transport requires robust support for high-quality infrastructure and services, alongside adequate safety and a feasible pricing scheme for citizens.
MANAGEMENT OF TRANSPORT-RELATED AIR POLLUTION
Atmospheric air protection issues are regulated by the Law of Georgia on Ambient Air Protection (1999). Under this law, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture (MEPA), together with various relevant agencies, is responsible for developing an air quality management plan to help mitigate the damage if the levels of major harmful air pollutants exceed their permissible maximum values within given territories. Another core reason behind cutting transport-related emissions is the achievement of sectoral targets within the 2030 Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan of Georgia, the goal of which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector by 15%, compared to the baseline scenario, by 2030.
Within the transport sector, Georgia is actively adopting modern European air quality control standards, such as periodic mandatory vehicle inspections. Analyzing the levels of PM2.5, CO, SO2, NO2 before and after the vehicle inspection program (which extended to all vehicles in January 2019) helps discern whether the program has had any “visible” impact on the concentration of these pollutants in Tbilisi.
Figure 1 below shows that PM2.5 concentrations are characterized by seasonal behavior; with a peak, and higher volatility, approximately between the end of October and the end of March – and lower, with more stable behavior, from April to October. During the stable period, concentrations are below the threshold (25 μg/m3) determined by the WHO and the EU. It is notable that PM2.5 concentrations remained the same even after the introduction of the regulation.
While CO levels in the analyzed period always remained below the recommended upper bound (10 μg/m3) as determined by the EU (Figure 2). Once again, there are few notable changes in CO concentrations after the introduction of mandatory vehicle inspections.
The most significant change in emission patterns since the introduction of vehicle checks is found in SO2 concentrations. As one can see in Figure 3, there is a noticeable reduction in the average level of emissions, in the number and height of spikes in SO2 emissions, as well as a reduction in their volatility. Since March 2021, SO2 concentrations have always been below the EU threshold (125 μg/m3), and often below the much stricter WHO recommended level (20 μg/m3), which was not the case beforehand.
The level of NO2 was always below the recommended upper bound (200 μg/m3) during the time horizon under analysis. Although five months after introducing the mandatory vehicle inspection, we can see a sharp decline in NO2 concentrations, now also characterized by a smaller variance.
Figure 1: Daily maximum level of PM2.5 (μg/m3) in Tbilisi
Figure 2: Daily maximum level of CO (μg/m3) in Tbilisi
Figure 3: Daily maximum level of SO2 (μg/m3) in Tbilisi
Figure 4: Daily maximum level of NO2 (μg/m3) in Tbilisi
These improvements in air quality are likely additionally due to the increased customs on older cars, tighter fuel quality standards, and higher excise taxes on fuel. Furthermore, a tax policy has been implemented since 2017 that discourages the acquisition of older cars and those with larger combustion engines, but also which promotes the import of hybrid and electric vehicles, while moreover developing electric charging infrastructure. Despite these improvements, atmospheric air pollution from on-road transport remains a problem and is still the main cause of atmospheric air emissions in Georgia. According to the State Audit Office 2018 report, the transport was responsible for 84% of CO and 80% of NO2 emissions in 2016. In addition, the underdevelopment of public transport, alongside pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, is still a challenge.
THE WAY FORWARD
Over the years, the Georgian parliament has adopted appropriate legislative changes to improve emissions control. Additional amendments were made to the Law of Georgia on Ambient Air Protection in May 2020, based on which air quality management is growing closer to European principles. In particular, the law provides the following requirements:
- For air quality management and monitoring purposes, the entirety of Georgian territory will be divided into zones and agglomerations, which will each conduct specific events related to the reduction of pollution;
- Atmospheric air quality management plans and short-term action plans will be developed in the zones and agglomerations where the risk of pollution has been identified;
- The air quality monitoring system will be expanded and improved in accordance with European monitoring standards, as established by the law;
- Measures to improve ambient air quality and public awareness on the issue will be developed further.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture considers the combination of fuel economy regulations and fuel taxes suggested by the OECD to be an optimal solution to air pollution caused by the transport sector. Thus the excise tax on fuel, which is currently between 250-500 GEL, will be adjusted on the basis of a thorough Cost-Benefit Analysis. The tax policy will be supported by a focused regulatory approach, including imported gasoline quality control, which aims to gradually move towards the best standards in the EU. While fuel economy regulations could also include setting a minimum standard for efficient consumption (miles per gallon) for lightweight vehicles, thus resulting in both a reduction of fuel dependence and lower emissions.
Regarding broader strategies in the transport sector, one possible alternative to the continuing expansion of private modes of transport is increasing accessibility to and improving the comfort of public transport (however the ongoing pandemic has at times forced public authorities to temporarily shut down public transportation due to health concerns). Assuming that the current public health emergency will cease, the government could support the expansion of low-pollution public transportation services and encourage the importation of vehicles built according to the most modern standards. Another longer-term opportunity for the development of ecologically friendly transportation is in the expansion of urban pathways for pedestrians and non-motorized vehicles, which in turn requires proper urban planning.
In summary, in order to improve air quality nationwide, as well as to meet the sectoral targets determined in the 2030 Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan of Georgia, the government should continue its combined regulatory and taxation measures to increase air quality monitoring, and continue to combat the air pollution generated by road vehicles between now and 2023. To support such actions, the government should consider investing in infrastructure that facilitates the use of non-polluting means of transportation (like walkways and dedicated bicycle lanes) as well awareness campaigns promoting virtuous behavior, such as: switching from private cars to other less polluting transport, especially within cities; ensuring the timely maintenance of cars; opting for light-duty tires; traveling at stable speeds, as sharp increases in speed raise emission levels; using air conditioning or heating only when required, and purchasing less polluting vehicles.