ISET Economist Blog

A blog about economics in the South Caucasus.

Clean Air is Lifetime

Lifetime is one of the most precious assets. People are paying huge amounts of money to extend their lifespans, sometimes for gaining only weeks or months. And imprisonment and death penalty are so widely applied punishments throughout all cultures and ages because people are scared off by the prospect of losing lifetime. As lifetime is such a valuable good, it is surprising that it is largely ignored in the policy debate.

According to the World Populations Prospects report, published in 2010 by the United Nations, Georgians have a life expectancy at birth of 73 years. With this value, the country is on rank 89 in the list. In contrast, the life expectancy in Switzerland is almost 82 years and in Japan it is even 83 years.

10 years difference in the average life expectancy is a disturbingly high value. If the average Georgian would have to spend 10 years of their lives in prison (without being guilty), there would definitely be a huge outrage and maybe a rebellion against the government. Yet ending one’s life 10 years short of its potential due to health reasons is the same reduction in lifetime, but nobody seems to be particularly upset about this.

There are many factors that influence life expectancy. Of course, there is a money issue. Low-income countries like Georgia cannot allot as many resources to health care as Switzerland and Japan. Yet the importance of the health care system for life expectancy should not be overestimated. The USA have the highest per capita spending on health, about 40% more than comparable industrial countries, but with a life expectancy of 78 years they just achieve a pathetic 40th place in the ranking.

Factors related to the lifestyles of people, like nutrition habits and the frequency of doing sports, seem to be more important than the amount of money given to the health system. In lifestyle matters, also less wealthy governments can adopt effective policies. Education, information campaigns, and providing access to recreational areas can be instrumental in fostering a healthy lifestyle.

Finally, environmental protection, which is largely under government control, can be equally critical for the health of people. There is a multitude of examples illustrating this connection. In Tbilisi, the heavy pollution due to car traffic is something one should speak about.


Ambient air pollution in Tbilisi is primarily caused by vehicles. According to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Protection, vehicles account for 71% of overall emissions in urban areas. The poisonous substances are carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, and black carbon. The treacherous particulates, dust particles that are so fine-grained that they can get through the lungs into the bloodstream, are also primarily made up of carbon.

The graph shows how the amount of health problems related to the respiratory system increased within the last 13 years. The jump in 2009 is due to an extension of the database, but also without that increase the upward trend is clearly visible.




According to a 2010 study of the United Kingdom Environmental Audit Committee, long-lasting exposure to air pollution can reduce lifetime by up to 9 years. Assuming this is correct, fighting pollution yields the potential to considerably reduce the lifespan gap between Georgia and Switzerland/Japan.

Referring to the global situation, a press release of October 2013 of the World Health Organization states that “the air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer causing substances just about everywhere.” And air pollution is “the major cause for cancer among humans” (emphasis by the authors of this article). The press release asserts that in the year 2010, air pollution caused 223,000 lung cancer fatalities worldwide.

Without any doubt, the lifetime price Georgians pay for their automobility is high.


Most of the cars driving in Tbilisi’s streets are technically outdated and consume overly much fuel. Very old vehicles do not even have a catalytic converter, a device that reduces some of the harmful emissions. Even cars with catalytic converters may be so old that the operating period of the converter has expired. A converter needs to be replaced after some years, and it becomes dysfunctional when fueled with leaded gasoline. In addition, there are also many diesel engines in Tbilisi, which are the main emitters of hazardous particulates. Catalytic converters cannot be installed in diesel engines.

Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether the problem should be approached by forcing Georgians to upgrade their cars. Many people barely make ends meet, and it may be improper and politically infeasible to force them to buy newer cars.

Another option, namely reducing the number of cars in the streets of Tbilisi, can be achieved much easier and without social costs. According to GeoStat, there were 831,600 registered vehicles in Georgia at the end of 2012, of which 78,500 were trucks, 51,200 buses, 29,200 “special cars”, and 672,700 ordinary cars. The chart below shows the composition of the Georgian vehicle fleet for different years. It is striking that the number of cars increased by more than 60% between 2006 and 2012.




For improving the air quality in Tbilisi, the easiest way would be to incentivize people to enter the city with public transport instead of using their private cars. To that end, one could limit the parking space in the city area and consistently tow away cars that break the rules. One could have pedestrian crossings and traffic lights along the main avenues, and enforce that these are respected by the drivers. One could force cars to drive more slowly – imposing a speed limit of 30 km/h on Rustaveli Avenue would both reduce pollution and make the boulevard much cozier.

At the same time, one could enhance alternative forms of mobility, for example by reserving special lanes for busses and marshrutka, allowing them to go faster than private cars. The police could start to enforce pedestrian rights, and there could be bicycle paths. On the long run, one could reestablish a light rail network and expand the Tbilisi Metro.

Another approach would be to have more green areas in Tbilisi. Green spaces somewhat filter the air, and they are sources of oxygen.

All these measures would not only improve the air quality in Tbilisi and reduce the associated health costs, but also make Tbilisi a more livable and attractive city.

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Sunday, 12 July 2020

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