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Can Georgia develop a strong policy on climate change?

While big polluter states are often the focus of international climate talks, it's important to pay attention to emerging economies, too.

Ellie Martus Selam Petersson
2 March 2020
CC BY NC 2.0 Richard / Flickr. Some rights reserved

Headlines from the recent UN Climate Conference in Madrid were dominated by the usual suspects, with attention on big polluters like the US, China, Russia and Australia, and the complex politics standing in the way of effective global action on climate change .

But the focus on the big polluters runs the risk of obscuring the actions taken by other states around the world. One state that rarely receives attention when it comes to climate and environmental policy is the Republic of Georgia.

Georgia is a country that has outstanding biodiversity and a fragile natural environment. It is also considered highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, facing threats that include increased frequency and severity of droughts, flooding and landslides. These are expected to have serious implications for agriculture in particular, which is central to Georgia’s economy.

Georgia is also an emerging economy, and so faces the combined challenge of trying to develop and lift its citizens out of poverty while trying to keep its emissions in check and respond to the environmental challenges presented by climate change.

The obstacles standing in the way of Georgia developing an active climate policy are considerable, and yet there is also cause for optimism. First though, If we take a look at the policy commitments Georgia has made on climate change, both internationally and at home, we can start to build up a clearer picture of a region that has been overlooked in global conversations on climate.

International engagement on climate change

Since independence in 1991, Georgia has sought to integrate into the global community and has committed to a large number of international environmental agreements, including all major climate agreements. Georgia ratified the Kyoto Protocol in June 1999, acceded to the Copenhagen Accord in 2010, and ratified the Paris Agreement in May 2017. Georgia has also participated in the Cartagena Dialogue, linking up with some of the world’s more progressive climate actors.

Georgia’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in May 2017, commits the government to a 15% reduction below the Business as Usual (BAU) scenario (as calculated by the Georgian government). This would mean a reduction of 5.76MtCO2e (million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) from the BAU figure of 38.42MtCO2e to 32.66MtCO2e, according to Georgian government calculations.

Georgia has also made a further conditional commitment. In their NDC, the government has said that their reduction target could be increased to 25% “subject to a global agreement addressing the importance of technical cooperation, access to low-cost financial resources and technology transfer”. This conditional commitment would mean that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would be 40% below the 1990 levels.

To put this in perspective however, it is worth emphasising a feature common to all post-Soviet states: economic collapse in the 1990s following the breakup of the Soviet Union led to a significant reduction in GHG emissions. Georgia’s emissions, for example, declined dramatically from 47.2MtCO2e in 1990 to 8.8MtCO2e in 1995, and have been slowly increasing ever since. This means that, while making a solid commitment to reducing GHG emissions, the targets are somewhat less ambitious than they first appear.

Domestic policy commitments

How has this international engagement translated into policy developments at the domestic level? In many ways, this remains a work in progress and few details have yet been provided on how these proposed emissions reductions will be achieved. However there have been some key achievements.

In June 2014, Georgia signed an Association Agreement with the EU, which has also played a part in driving the development of domestic policy. The agreement includes a commitment to meeting the objectives of the UNFCCC, and cooperation on a range of climate related issues including policy development and implementation, supporting renewable energy, and encouraging energy efficiency.

Another crucial document is Georgia’s Low Emissions Development Strategy (LEDS), released in 2017 and developed with funding from USAID. LEDS sets sectoral targets for reducing emissions in energy, transport, construction, industry, agriculture and waste. At the same time, the government is developing a Climate Action Plan 2021-2030 to provide more detail and guide future climate policy developments.

There are a number of other policies in place, which reflect Georgia’s focus on climate change adaptation and preparation. The government regularly highlights this as a main priority, stating for example, in Georgia’s third National Environmental Action Programme (NEAP) that “one of the main objectives of the government of Georgia is to improve the country’s preparedness and adaptive capacity by developing climate resilient practices that reduce the vulnerability of highly exposed communities”.

Challenges for Georgia

Despite solid attempts by successive Georgian governments to develop Georgia’s climate policy commitments, a number of serious obstacles remain.

The first of these relates to broader state capacity issues within Georgia’s environmental bureaucracy. Currently, responsibility for the development, implementation and coordination of Georgia’s climate change policy lies with the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture, which has been subject to frequent reorganization in the past and suffers from a lack of resources.

Some of these gaps are filled by funding from international donors, several of whom have specific projects directed towards climate mitigation such as the German Corporation for International Cooperation. Georgia also receives climate related funding from the EU (as part of the EU4Climate project for example) and UNDP. However, these are insufficient given the scale of the task.

A further challenge comes from the limited interest in climate policy displayed by the private sector. Companies in Georgia have often been reluctant to participate in environmental discussions more broadly, with very few companies releasing corporate social responsibility reports or providing other data on the environmental impact of their activities to the public. There is little indication that business groups will play a proactive role in encouraging the government to act on climate issues in the future.

Opportunities for the future

When it comes to civic engagement in environmental concerns, there is more room for optimism however. Georgia participated in the recent Global Climate Strike, although turnout was relatively small and focused on more localized environmental concerns like air pollution and hydroelectric projects rather than climate change specifically.

Most importantly though, Georgia has a very active environmental civil society. There are a large number of NGOs operating in the country, including grassroots groups like Green Alternative, as well as ones with international links and funding such as CENN. In the past, these groups have managed to campaign effectively on a number of issues ranging from mining pollution to municipal waste. This points to the considerable potential that NGOs have to drive Georgia’s climate governance.

The final point to note is the importance Georgia places on its relationship with the international community. Georgia frequently emphasizes its desire to participate in international climate efforts, affirming its commitment to the Paris Agreement and GHG emissions reduction through the recent national environmental action program for example. Georgia’s ongoing political orientation towards the EU, widely regarded as a climate leader, has the potential to encourage a more ambitious set of emissions targets and will likely be a powerful factor shaping the development of Georgia’s climate policy in the future.

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