After nearly two years in Georgia, I can say that climate change does not register much over the horizon here. Our work requires us to do marketing and publicity for energy efficiency, which also gets rather poor coverage in the press in Georgia. So last weekend we offered a group of Georgian journalists the chance of 2 days in the tourist spot of Sighnaghi in Eastern Georgia, while having some training on the topic of energy efficiency and climate change.
Previous attempts a year before had been a bit too technical for them. So this time, the training was mainly carried out by two journalists, who could give tips on their craft as well help to find interesting angles for stories, whilst I explained some of the problems of energy use in Georgia.
We are required in our project to make sure that the training is open to both sexes and that wherever possible equal numbers of women and men are trained. Normally we have to take photos to prove this. This time we had 14 women and 1 man (who disappeared the second day). This is pretty typical for journalists in Georgia.
We also listened to what the journalists had to say:
What is news in Georgia?
There is no doubt that politics drowns out most of the other news in Georgia. The antics of the government and opposition are covered ad nauseum. And news drowns out investigative journalism (we only know one journalist from a monthly publication), in depth journalism might imply criticism of the government and the loss of a job. There are no columns devoted to new technology, or science "as these are not of interest to the people". Descending into stereotypes, this may be because journalists tend to be recruited from the humanities, and tend to be women, with little science or engineering background. It may also be because professions are recruited directly from the universities and there is little opportunity to move for example from business to journalism or from science or engineering to journalism.
Environmental issues are seen as a luxury for a poor country like Georgia, and no one realised that CO2 reduction could provide big investments for Georgia through JI and CDM. Nobody knew much about the Kyoto Protocol or the big Climate Change Conference coming up in Copenhagen in Georgia.
This has been the real issue in Georgian news. After independence there were many difficulties with power supplies (not to mention civil war). In 1995/6 when I visited Tbilisi and went out to eat, you could either see the menu but not the food when it came, or vice versa, as power supplies were regularly cut off throughout the day. In those days, it was more important to get some energy at all, and saving it made no sense. Industry could not get raw materials so was hardly working at all, so had no incentives to save or replace equipment.
Happily times have changed and one of the successes of Saakashvili has been to stabilise and build up the energy supply. The economy is developing but with a bias towards high risk strategies: a construction boom based a property bubble, luxury hotels and shopping centres hardly affordable or needed by ordinary people; plus a dependence on transit: oil and gas, food imports and other goods going going further east. Who knows what the effect of the Turkey-Armenia rapprochement will be on transit routes in the region?
So what is energy efficiency?
Journalists did not distinguish between energy and energy efficiency. Energy prices are considered high, till we pointed out that the prices were quite low compared with Europe (electricity is mainly hydro, gas comes from Azerbaijan now). It is the consumption in Georgia that is high because ex-Soviet countries generally use three times more energy than western developed countries. Some other reasons are:
- Soviet legacy equipment in factories is worn out and inefficient now, but was never designed with energy efficiency in mind
- Bank interest rates are very high (just beginning to come down below 20%) so loans are expensive
- Lack of knowledge of what is available on the market: not much on the internet on this topic in Russian and even less in Georgian
- A government whose policy of ultraliberalism (inherited from Bush advisers) has removed any regulation which set standards for construction or inhibited the free reign of wild capitalism (suiting some of the government businessmen masquerading as politicians)
- So no building codes requiring insulation and double glazing, or shading for summer.
- Heating even in modern buildings (like our office) is still often by individual room heaters, not central heating.
- Even people building their own new villas do not know about insulation, let alone where to buy it.
In Georgia households account for about half of all energy used in Georgia, unlike most countries, where it is around 20-30%. District heating from a thermal power station was abandoned in the early 90s, leaving people to fend absolutely for themselves, burning wood, kerosene or even petrol inside their buildings. New blocks of flats are still being built as "white shell" with the new owner supposed to provide himself with insulation, double glazing, central heating as well as finish the shell. In contrast, Russia already has legislation similar to the EU on building energy performance.
In the countryside where the poor live, the situation is even worse. Many villages are without electricity and even small towns lack gas networks. So people survive with heating using illegal wood burnt in metal boxes on legs (I will not dignify them with the name of stoves), which are horrifyingly dangerous.
Freak weather does not much affect Georgia. Snow in October was unusual this year, but had the merit of keeping the Caucasus mountains inaccessible for Russians. So climate change is not much of a news story either.
What is to be done?
Generally the journalists thought it was the government's job to sort out this mess. So we gave them the example of the grassroots activism of the 10:10 campaign in the UK.
Single issue activism and greenery is not yet a force in Georgia. Even parliamentary activism is low key. Issues are just expressed in terms of whether Saakashvili's resignation will help or not, and on the streets, rather than in Parliament. Developing rational choices between concrete actions and debating written policy proposals, is too tame for the fiery and emotional Georgians.
Not a very hopeful story. But we are running a competition for the journalists in the hope that this will create incentives for them to write more on the topic.
I leave you with details of our latest project being developed for a loan: 60 tons of poultry manure a day has to be disposed of somewhere beyond a large poultry farm, as disposal is now getting beyond the scope of the farm. With this manure and a biodigester, plus a modified diesel generator, it is possible for the farm to be self-sufficient in heat and electricity, sell gas to the local network or bottle it for selling in gas stations. The manure residue turns into organic solid and liquid fertiliser which commands a higher price than ordinary chemical fertiliser. This project also reduces methane emissions from the manure and CO2 emissions from electricity and heat generation so could get an income from CO2 reductions.
A happier prospect? Not quite. The farm is busy developing battery hens and broilers just when UK supermarkets are boasting about their eggs laid by hens who have never seen a battery cage.