Air Quality in Georgia. How Are We Doing?

The ISET Economist, a blog about economics in Georgia and the South Caucasus by the International School of Economics at TSU (ISET)

If you are a governmental stakeholder, civil society organization, research institute or a concerned citizen pondering the state of the environment, the biennial Environmental Performance Index (EPI) tells an inconvenient truth regarding the trajectory of each country and their performance. The rankings provide unpolished results concerning countries and their commitments, or lack thereof, to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other complementary international agreements. The EPI list should provide signposts for policymakers to fathom what actions are needed to reverse negative impacts on the environment and its citizens. So, what is EPI and what does this year’s result say about Georgia? Is there any specific indicator that we should feel concerned about?


The EPI, an index produced by prestigious Universities such as Yale and Columbia, with support from the World Economic Forum, has been presenting data on a number of countries and their performance since 2002. The current list reveals the scoring of 180 countries and their individual performance regarding Ecosystem Vitality (the protection of, e.g., natural resource services) and Environmental Health (e.g., progress in air pollution or protection of drinking waters that can endanger human health if not considered). What makes the EPI a pedagogical tool for any policymaker who wishes to look more closely at this year’s result (or for that matter all EPI lists since its inception), is the immense transparency offered. EPI can tell policymakers and the public alike how far, or close to, a country is in achieving environmental policy objectives. If a country scores low on EPI, it needs to scale up its efforts in several areas. For each analyzed indicator, one will find a set of sources used, such as the international organizations that provided data or contributed with extensive research.

Scratching the surface of this year’s result, we note that Turkmenistan ranked the highest amongst the Former Soviet Union (FSU) countries. They performed well, especially with regard to Environmental Health indicators. Georgia ranks in 94th place (it was in 111th place in 2016) and scores a bit higher in Environmental Health than in Environmental Vitality. Azerbaijan, on the other hand, had the highest scores in Environmental Vitality, compared to their performance in Environmental Health, among all the FSU countries.

The downfall for the EPI project is the lack of data, especially in areas such as water management, biodiversity loss and agriculture. The EPI team has made an urgent call to improve data collection, verification and reporting. A compelling solution to this would be to create an enhanced global data system (EPI, 2018). However, establishing such system is paired with some difficulties and challenges, which need to be jointly met by a range of stakeholders such as researchers, the civil and private sectors, and governments (WorldBank, Discussion Draft, 2017). Despite the highlighted weaknesses that challenge the project, the main finding of this year concerns the inability across all nations to improve air quality.


The basic need to breathe fresh air, free from particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and the like, has been constantly challenged thanks to industrialization. What complicates the issue is that it is not only outdoor air that is at stake, but also the indoor environment, due to household solid fuels (use of indoor fires for cooking etc.). To fully grasp the magnitude of the problem for Georgia and the FSU countries, I will present two figures: Figure 1 shows the proportion of people exposed to PM2.5 that exceeds WHO’s guidelines. The PM2.5 pollutant is a small but deadly particulate matter that can derive from combustion sources, causing severe breathing problems as well as cardiovascular disorders (World Health Organization, 2006a; EPI, 2018). Figure 2 shows the numbers of lost lives due to exposure to household solid fuels.

Figure 1. Source: Original data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (Technical Appendix of EPI,

With a few exceptions, it is quite clear that instead of a steady decline in exposure to PM2.5, many countries are recording increasing numbers. As seen in Figure 1, they are even exceeding the current level of pollution compared to 2008 levels. But how far off is Georgia regarding the guidelines outlined by WHO, really? Considering that the typical Georgian citizen was exposed to 15 µg/m3 of PM2.5 in 2015 (measured in mean annual concentration) and cross checking this number with the information provided in Table 2, Georgian air quality is still poor. With exposure at even 10 µg/m3 of PM2.5 WHO has established, with a 95% confidence rate, the connection between these levels and mortality caused by heart and lung diseases. At the lowest level recorded at 2009 (11 µg/m3 of PM2.5), Georgia still exceeded the WHO air quality guideline.

Figure 2.Source: Original data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (Technical Appendix of EPI,

In order to highlight the consequences of bad air quality, the EPI has provided a data set stretching from 2000-2016, estimating the number of life-years lost as a consequence of poor air quality. As can be seen in Figure 2, Georgia tops the FSU countries with a staggering four-digit number (year 2016), with 1,107 life years lost per 100,000 persons. Fortunately, as noted in Figure 2, a steady decline of life-years lost can be registered from the year 2000 and onwards, not just for Georgia but also all FSU countries. So, what can be done to curb the emissions? Are there any specific targets to focus on?

Table 1. Interim targets and AQGs in annual mean concentrations


As neither the interim targets nor the air quality guidelines (AQGs) from WHO should be used as thresholds, government should consult stipulated document such as The European Associate Agreement (AA) with Georgia. The AA refers to Directive 2008/50/EC, which aims to improve ambient air quality in Europe. This directive settles the requirements for assessment of concentrations regarding ambient air quality. The limit value is set to 24 µg/m3 of PM2.5 annual average. Within these limits, the directive has outlined an upper and lower assessment threshold of 70 % of limit value and 50% of limit value, respectively. Would Georgia be even close to reaching any of these values? With an exposure level of 15 µg/m3 of PM2.5 in 2015 (as recorded in the EPI-dataset), Georgia somehow places itself in the middle. The good news is, of course, that Georgia is fulfilling the objectives spelled out by the directive and has done so for many years (below 24 µg/m3 of PM2.5). Although Georgia has not yet gone below 10 µg/m3 of PM2.5, it did already reach the directive’s lower assessment threshold in 2009.

As a final note and reminder, I wish to stress that the EPI should serve as an indicative tool, and each individual result can work as a catalyst for policymakers to further improve and perfect actions that will reduce environmental impacts. Thanks to the EPI’s transparency, policymakers can in fact consult the various documents provided by the EPI team. This enables a fairer picture of each country and their individual result, with the help of aggregated data, and can also serve as an annotation of past records.

By Selam Petersson 

Illustration source:

14 May 2018 20:19