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Turning Soviet legacy into green future


THE HAGUE, The Netherlands -- There are myriad ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions. You can plant forests to photo-synthetically "vacuum up" excess carbon dioxide belched into the skies.

You can swap the BMW for a bike, heat your home with cleaner forms of energy. Ditch aerosol deodorant and use roll-ons.

Or , if you happen to live in the fledgling post-Soviet state of Georgia, you can simply wait for the communist superpower at your doorstep to collapse, depriving you virtually overnight of your dominant source of the fuels that produce all those noxious heat-trapping gases.

In 1990, the year before the Soviet demise, Georgia's Soviet-driven industry spewed 37 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.

Produced mostly by burning industrial fossil fuels, carbon dioxide is the gas most scientists say is a primary cause of global warming.

By 1997, Georgia's carbon dioxide emissions had plummeted to 27.8 million tons.

It is also 14 times the 5.2 percent target for cuts called for in the Kyoto Protocol that the 180 nations attending this week's conference in The Hague have been at such pains to implement.

Over a five-year period, to 1995, the near-collapse of Georgia's electrical power grid also meant that electricity generation nearly sputtered to a halt, falling from 33.8 million tons to 3.9 million -- about 15 percent of the former level.

For many years in the early 90s, the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, lacked central heating, with residents suffering power shutdowns for six hours at a time.

Today, the numbers are creeping back up as market forces reopen trade with Russia. But energy remains costly, forcing many Georgians to use less. Europe
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"From an environmental perspective, we are starting from a good position," said Paata Janelidze, a Georgian government official working on climate change.

His booth at The Hague conference was crowded with economists and business leaders learning about the potential of a tiny nation of 5.7 million sandwiched between Russia and Turkey on the Black Sea.

The visitors believe Georgia is blessed with a landscape and a location that may be its saving grace as it looks for ways to rehabilitate its shattered economy along environmentally "sustainable" lines.

With the Black Sea hugging its western coastline and soaring mountain ranges sweeping across its interior, experts say the country has the ideal mix of water and wind resources to develop clean, renewable energy.

Or to redevelop, as the case may be with Georgia, according to Axel Michaelowa, an environmental planning strategist with the Hamburg Institute of International Economics.

Georgia still retains a network of hundreds of small, but dilapidated hydro-power plants originally built by the Soviet regime in the 1930s.

These were closed when subsequent Soviet rulers switched to thermal power plants in the 1960s, following the discovery of oil reserves in another Soviet republic, Kazakhstan.

"Georgia has a perfect background for renewable energy," said Michaelowa.

Other regional partners, like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, are more likely to benefit from solar power in future, but political and economic troubles in these countries have delayed serious action.

Georgia is less blessed, however, where money matters are concerned.

A lack of hard currency reserves means that well-intentioned officials have had threadbare budgets.

Under the so-called Clean Development Mechanism, or CDM, enshrined in the Kyoto protocol, qualifying countries are allowed to sell greenhouse gas credits so long as they agree to plough resulting revenues back into environmental development.

Black Sea rising

But this trade in heat-trapping gases is strictly circumscribed for undeveloped countries, like Georgia and many of its nighbours. They -- unlike industrial giants like Russia or the U.S. -- must have certified energy-saving projects under way before they can get the go-ahead to sell emissions credits.

Russia, by contrast, with 300 million tons of natural gas, of which it only needs 200 million for domestic use, would be free to sell the 100 million surplus on a whim if it desired, according to Michaelowa.

There are also environmental considerations: the Black Sea has risen 37 centimetres this century.

Janelidz's colleague, Tengiz Gzirishvili, says Georgia has two choices as it seeks to meet rising demand for energy.

It could exploit low-quality black coal deposits -- an option that makes environmentalists and economic advisers bristle.

Or it could develop renewable energy from water and wind power, the more expensive option.

Recognising its potential, some westerners are wading into Georgia's energy sector, albeit warily given the cash crunch and political uncertainties across much of the region.

"They know that they are full of light and full of energy and they have to use it," said Dietrich Borst, a climate policy adviser with Unit Energy Europe AG, a German company that recently retooled two 4.5-megawatt turbine generators at an ageing Soviet-built hydropower plant in Soni, Georgia.

Elsewhere, the Georgian government has projects under way to rehabilitate a handful of other Soviet-era hydro-plants -- but Borst says the process is still excruciatingly slow, and hundreds of plants remain mothballed.

"They all use oil and gas, but they are sitting on their hands and waiting (with hydropower). They have to get going to more renewable energies."

Michaelowa believes that wind power alone -- harnessed from westerly gusts blowing in from the Black Sea -- could generate 40 gigawatts of power annually.

With that, he says, "you could electrify all of Germany for a year."

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