Arzybek Kojoshev, Kyrgyzstan’s minister for the economy, recently gave a speech describing his desire to see Kyrgyzstan adopt an environmentally friendly model of development. He expressed hope that his country would emerge as a regional leader in creating a greener economy, offering an extensive list of possible initiatives. These ranged from organic agriculture to energy-efficient lighting and renewable technologies, and the creation of a special economic zone for green tech-companies.
Yale University’s latest Environmental Performance Index (EPI) rates Kyrgyzstan in 71st place. That may seem unimpressive but it does represent some real progress. The 2012 EPI listed Kyrgyzstan in 101st place, with all other Central Asian nations languishing outside the top 100. Kyrgyzstan is also far ahead of the worst regional performer, Uzbekistan – all the way down at 118. Nevertheless, at 71st in the world much remains to be done, and assuming he is serious, Kojoshev will have his work cut out. His goal? To transition fully to a “green economy” by 2035.
Bishkek has been trying hard to dispel any suggestion its environmental mission is all PR bluster. In fact, the concept is not new, with Kyrgyzstan hosting an international conference on sustainable development earlier this year, drawing over 100 participants. That included representatives from the World Bank and German Development Corporation. This is all very welcome from a moral standpoint, but it’s ultimately the economic soundness of the plans that matter. On closer inspection the results are mixed.
In his speech Kojoshev suggested seeking international donors to financially support environmental projects. It’s not an unreasonable proposition. The location of his speech was the Kyrgyz Sustainable Energy Financing Facility (KyrSEFF), itself a result of overseas aid. The European Commission initiated the idea, provided the funding and tasked the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to put everything in place. With that in mind, Kojoshev’s confidence in the ability of Kyrgyzstan to attract international help in transitioning to a greener economy is fair.
Broad proposals to clean up the environment and popularize the use of organic farming methods are also in line with Kyrgyzstan’s economic interests. The largest sector of the economy remains agriculture, with cotton and tobacco the leading export products (although the Kumtor gold mine also contributes a sizeable chunk of GDP). Soil erosion is a major concern in a mountainous country where there is little suitable land. In 2014 the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reported that up to 85 percent of such land is exposed to erosion. The link between this and poverty is easy to spot: a reduction in land quality would both squeeze the incomes of farm workers and hinder key exports. Kyrgyzstan relies on its “natural capital”; taking steps to ensure sustainable farming methods makes good economic sense.
On the subject of renewable energy, Kojoshev was not outlining a new approach. In 2015 the government announced its intention to construct a series of small hydroelectric power plants in order to combat an ongoing energy crisis. This should also reduce the amount of electricity imported from Kazakhstan. There is reason to be optimistic. The 2009 Law of the Kyrgyz Republic on Renewable Energy Sources, adopted under former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, exempts customs duties on equipment and materials destined for renewable energy power plants – suggesting an openness to foreign investment. In April, EurasiaNet revealed that a Chinese firm had expressed a willingness to build four hydroelectric power stations on the Naryn River. They quickly stepped in after the Russians pulled out – showing one benefit of being surrounded by larger powers competing for influence.
Other aspects of Kojoshev’s plan are too ambitious. Consider the apparent need to encourage the spread of electric cars. On the surface it seems to make a lot of sense. Air pollution is a scourge of Kyrgyzstan’s urban areas thanks to heavy traffic, so an eco-friendly mode of transport would be helpful. However, there are hardly incentives in place to promote the use of electric cars. It is true that batteries are becoming more powerful, but for now traditional gas-guzzlers are still cheaper, even in the developed world.
In a country like Kyrgyzstan, the savings could be even greater. The relative financial burden of the electric car is unlikely to be mitigated soon, although states can enact policies designed to stimulate usage. In Britain, until two years ago, grants were offered to reduce the cost for consumers, but the Kyrgyz government probably won’t have the deep pockets required to do the same. Admittedly, there was a hint of insincerity when Kojoshev revealed this part of the grand vision – as if it were a tactic designed to excite potential donors and keep the public funds rolling in.
Whatever his motivation, Kyrgyzstan’s environmental strategy is a step in the right direction, even if a part of that strategy is a little hard to believe.
Henry James is a Risk Graduate of Durham University.