Turkey is facing a danger even greater than its strained relations with Russia, the continuing unrest in the southeast, the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and those who compare President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Lord of the Rings character Smeagol.
That danger is climate change. Although human-induced shifts in weather patterns will affect every part of the globe for the coming decades, Turkey is at a particular disadvantage. Misguided energy policies, along with the misuse of freshwater resources, could turn vast swaths of the country into a desert while creating new international headaches for Turkish leaders.
The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) that took place in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11 pledged to reverse climate change by keeping the rise in average global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius — by 2100. During the COP21, 196 countries agreed to stabilize their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2020 before starting to decrease them. The ultimate goal is to make the world free of carbon dioxide emissions by 2100.
A majority of scientists argue that, much like a greenhouse trapping heat, gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, which come from agricultural activity and burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), cause Earth’s atmosphere to trap excess heat. Aside from melting polar ice caps and causing ocean levels to rise, experts think that warmer temperatures will lead to droughts and massive floods while making certain parts of the planet uninhabitable.
These inconvenient truths should haunt Turkey. According to the European Environment Agency, Turkey’s total GHG emissions increased from 187 million tons in 1990 to more than 400 million tons in 2011. The country’s own statistical institute (TUIK) estimates that its total GHG emissions stood at the equivalent of 459 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2013. Two-thirds of Turkey’s emissions are “energy-related.”
Cuneyt Kazokoglu, an energy consultant at the London-based energy consultancy firm FGE, told Al-Monitor that despite being a major GHG polluter, the Turkish government does not have a “transformation plan” to replace fossil fuel sources with renewable energy. Kazokoglu said that Ankara actually plans “to increase coal-powered electricity output from 32 billion kilowatt-hours [kwh] in 2014 to 57 billion kwh by 2018.” In a recent BBC article, he labeled it “misleading” for the Turkish government to pledge a 21% cut in projected increases to its GHG emissions within the next 15 years. According to Kazokoglu, even this “environmentalist” scenario means that Turkey’s total GHG emissions will reach the equivalent of 929 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2030 — a twofold increase from 2013.
“Turkey is very bad with energy efficiency,” Kazokoglu said. “The focus should be on wind and solar energy.” He added, “Let me give you a simple example: Germany gets 1,500 hours of sunlight but has a solar production capacity of 40 gigawatts [40 million kW]. Turkey receives 2,700 hours of sunlight, but its solar capacity is only 0.1 gigawatts [100,000 kW].”
Ankara is reluctant to invest in solar and wind energy partly because the recent drop in coal, oil and gas prices make them the cheapest options for Erdogan’s ambitions in rapid economic development.
Yet experts still think Turkey should break its addiction to fossil fuels because they jeopardize not only the country’s mismanaged freshwater resources, but also its international standing. According to Ethemcan Turhan, an environmental social scientist and Mercator-IPC fellow at Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Center, Turkey already faces a serious freshwater deficit “because of wrong investments in mega dams and hydroelectric plants that were carried out without taking the ecosystem into account.” As the effects of climate change worsen and the decline in precipitation continues, the number of dried lakes and rivers in Turkey will increase.
Turhan told Al-Monitor that the Turkish government’s careless attitude toward climate change could have severe international repercussions. “Although Turkey has announced many strategies and action plans to combat climate change, these have not led to concrete measures. Thus Turkey’s window of opportunity to set the tone of the new climate change regime beyond 2020 is closing.” He added, “Instead of rapid and polluting economic growth priorities, [Turkey’s climate] policies should be pioneering on the international scene and be concrete, socially and ecologically meaningful, and take local people's demands into account.”
Aysegul Kibaroglu, an expert of transboundary water politics and international water law and a professor at MEF University in Istanbul, reminds us that Turkey’s dwindling freshwater resources could turn into international troubles because it shares five major river basins with all of its neighbors: Meric (Maritsa), Coruh (Chorokhi), Aras (Arax), Firat-Dicle (Euphrates-Tigris) and Asi. Kibaroglu told Al-Monitor, “Considering [Turkey and its neighbors] have complicated and rather inefficient national water policies, it will be even more difficult for these countries to develop common and compatible policies in mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change.” Kibaroglu uses the case of the Meric, which springs from Bulgaria into Greece and finally Turkey, and its massive floods that have harmed the region for the past 15 years. Despite well-established warning mechanisms that prevent the loss of life, the three countries and the European Union have yet to construct ecologically viable dams to prevent flooding on the Meric.
If Ankara cannot move forward with Greece and Bulgaria — neighbors with which it enjoys generally stable relations — it is highly doubtful that it could manage the Aras, Firat-Dicle and Asi basins with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. As several Al-Monitor articles have warned recently, most Middle Eastern and North African countries are already facing serious water-related environmental problems.
Unless Turkey redirects its energy policies away from fossil fuels and invests in technologies to combat climate change, its relations with Middle Eastern countries could get even more complicated.