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Turkey balks at coal phaseout amid growing energy woes

Turkey’s pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2053 has come into question after a major climate meeting ended without a coal phaseout plan.
Employees install new solar panels at the Kalyon Energy's Karapinar Solar Power Plant, Karapinar, Turkey,  Dec. 2, 2021.

Turkey remains without a plan to phase out coal power after its first Climate Council ended in disappointment for clean energy advocates, casting doubts on Ankara's pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2053 amid growing energy woes plaguing the country's economy.

Turkey ratified the Paris climate agreement in October, becoming the last G-20 country to do so after five years of foot-dragging in protest of its classification as a developed country without access to financial support for climate action. The deadlock was resolved after a French-German guarantee of $3.2 billion in loans for Turkey's energy transition.

Consequently, Turkey's Ministry of Environment and Urbanization was rebranded to add "climate change” to its name, and Ankara committed to a net zero target for carbon emissions by 2053. Those moves, however, had more form than substance, lacking measurable medium-term goals. The country's first Climate Council was meant to change that.

The gathering, held in late February in the central city of Konya, coincided with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has stoked energy prices and rekindled concerns over energy security in European countries that rely heavily on Russian gas, as does Turkey. Some fear the crisis could lead world leaders to slacken climate action, but many others hope it would actually accelerate the green transition. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, for instance, has emphasized the need to "massively invest in renewables,” calling it "a strategic investment in [the European Union's] energy independence.”

The government-led Climate Council — a culmination of two months of online discussions involving bureaucrats, the private sector, civic society and academics — aimed to produce a road map on how to reach the net zero target as well as clarify how Turkey should update its nationally determined contribution [NDC] — a set of nonbinding emission reduction goals required under the Paris agreement.

Turkeys current NDC outlines an intention to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions up to 21% from what they would be under a business-as-usual scenario by 2030. This, in fact, implies a near double increase from present emission levels, and is set to be updated with a more ambitious goal ahead of the 27th session of the UN Climate Change Conference in November.

Drawing on two studies that argue Turkey could quit coal by 2030 or 2035, civil society organizations have ramped up their calls on Ankara to set a deadline to phase out the dirtiest fuel source, which currently accounts for over 30% of Turkey's electricity production. Committing to a phaseout would lower emissions by a drastic 82.8% in 2035, one of the studies found.

Even a decision to phase down — as opposed to phase out — would have created disappointment. But the council fell even short of that,” Bengisu Ozenc, founding director of the Sustainable Economics and Finance Association, told Al-Monitor.

"The final decisions are long term and often centered on technological improvements,” she said, referring to the mention of carbon removal technologies without a commitment to exit coal. "Very little is said on what needs to be done today.”

The council decisions described natural gas and nuclear power as "emissions reducing alternative fuels,” while endorsing the search for new natural gas fields. "This is not very surprising, considering that even the EU still discusses it,” said Cigdem Nas, secretary-general of the Economic Development Foundation, referring to the European Commission's recent much-criticized categorization of gas and nuclear as “green” investments.

“Turkey usually follows from a few steps behind,” she noted. "Ankara prioritizes growth over the environment. And I think there is still not a clear understanding of how inseparable the two have become."

The link has indeed become clear with the EUs Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism. The arrangement, set to be implemented in 2026, will levy additional taxes on certain goods produced in countries without carbon pricing in order to prevent carbon leakage and unfair competition.

Turkey is still without an emissions trading system, a carbon market mechanism that incentivizes emission reductions by imposing a limit on them and expecting firms to either buy or sell additional permits depending on the amount of their emissions. Hence, the country will be subject to the EU's carbon border tax.

Since the EU is a major export destination for Turkey, the annual cost of the tax could be as high as $1.8 billion, according to the Turkish Industry and Business Association, the country's top business group. This is why the private sector has become increasingly vocal on the need for decarbonization.

"The business community understands the limits of dealing with the carbon tax without the state's assistance, which is why it is pressuring the government to take action,” Nas explained. Instead of paying that tax, "we can establish our own carbon market and channel the ensuing funds to support the green transition.”

Moreover, transitioning to green energy makes business sense in its own right. The recent fall in the costs of building wind and solar power plants has coincided with a stark rise in global hard coal prices, rendering it more economically viable to build a new wind or solar plant in Turkey than to run an existing coal-fired power plant with imported coal, according to a recent report by Ember, a think tank focused on clean energy.

Renewables are also advantageous as a domestic source of energy. This became clearer recently, as gas-dependent European nations, particularly Germany, struggled to craft a response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

As a country with scant fossil fuel resources, Turkey, too, is heavily reliant on Russian gas and other energy imports, the bill of which has recently ballooned not only because of the soaring global prices but also the dramatic depreciation of the Turkish lira. Ankara has been supporting domestic coal production as a means of reducing dependence, while also striving to diversify its suppliers. In 2019, it relied on Russia to meet some 34% of its natural gas needs, having managed to increase imports from Azerbaijan, Iran and Qatar.

But, meanwhile, Turkey's coal-fired power plants have grown reliant on imported coal. In 2020, some 59% of Turkey's coal-fired electricity production relied on imported coal, around 34% of which came from Russia. Hence, green transition is important also for reducing Turkey's dependence on foreign energy supplies.

Still, investments in green energy remain minuscule compared to Turkey's potential. Even as the country's renewable capacity grew by 50% in the past five years, it fell short of covering merely the rise in the country's energy demand since 2010.

Changing this requires improvements. These include rendering the system more flexible in the face of variability in order to accommodate a higher share of renewables, incentivizing green investments and setting up an emissions trading system.

Council decisions on renewables were mostly in line with these objectives. But subsequent action plans should also put emphasis on the pace of increasing the share of renewables,” Elif Ferdal Karakas, general coordinator of the Geothermal Energy Association, told Al-Monitor. "Unless we keep pace with this transition by adopting the right policies, there is a heavy price to be paid."