As COP25 kicks off, where does Turkey’s climate policy stand?

Turkish representatives have joined the United Nations’ COP 25 summit on climate change that started in Madrid on Dec. 2, but while there is some public interest in the issue in Turkey, there has been little progress since it signed the landmark Paris Climate Agreement in 2016.

In many cases Turkey appears to be going backwards on the climate crisis. Turkey is yet to ratify the 2016 agreement, and it has continued to make heavy use of coal-fired plants while pushing through construction megaprojects that have become a hallmark of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule.

Last month, the AKP and its coalition partners submitted a draft bill that would delay the imposition chimney filter requirements for coal-fired power plants for two years.

This move was supported by friendly reports in government-linked media outlets. A reporter on CNN Türk devoted several minutes of a newscast to explain the negative impact the legislation would have on the Turkish public, saying it would leave 500,000 people without power for 10 days, lead to 12,000 cancellations on subway lines, and hit manufacturing.

The report brought accusations of media manipulation and scientific illiteracy, and the public backlash led President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to veto the draft bill.

But the reasoning used in the newscast shows the tendency in Turkey to prioritise economic concerns over the environment.

This ties into Ankara’s approach to the Paris Climate Agreement, which it has so far refused to ratify. When Turkey signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, it was designated as an “Annex 1” developed country based on its political and strategic importance more than its level of economic development. Before ratifying the agreement, the Turkish government has demanded a downgrade of its status to a lower annex, which would allow it to benefit from support allocated to developing countries.

At the same time, it has set extremely limited carbon reduction targets with a pledge of a 21-percent decrease in projected levels, which is significantly lower than the 40-percent sufficiency threshold discussed at the COP21 conference in Paris.

The main challenge for Turkey to comply with the Paris agreement is its reliance on coal-fired plants, which produced 37.3 percent of the country’s power in 2018. Notwithstanding its already soft pledges at the Paris Conference, Turkey intends to increase the use of coal further in an attempt to increase its domestic energy supply.

This comes at the end of a decades-long trend showing an increase in the use of fossil fuels. A 2018 report by the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research shows that fossil CO2 emissions in Turkey almost tripled from 1990 to 2018, while those in European Union countries declined by a fifth.

That rise has taken place over decades in which Turkey has experienced periods of rapid economic growth, particularly under AKP rule since 2002.

That growth in large part has been fuelled by construction booms, including the ruling party’s trademark giant infrastructure projects, and these too have garnered widespread criticism for their environmental impact. A recent report by a Turkish forest protection association argued that a total of 13 million trees had been cut down to build Istanbul’s new airport, although the project’s environmental impact report predicted that 2.5 million would be cut down.

As a long and painful economic crisis endures in Turkey, it is unlikely that the government will place significant emphasis on environmental concerns. The unemployment rate in Turkey is 13.9 percent, and analysts point to the economy to explain the AKP’s poor performance in this year’s local elections. Under these circumstances it is difficult to see climate concerns becoming a priority.

When the country shifted from a parliamentary to an executive presidential system of government last year, the Development Ministry, which was responsible for sustainable development and climate change, was abolished.

Turkey is yet to establish a National Coordination Council stipulated by the UN’s “Transforming Our World : 2030 Agenda” resolution that it signed in 2015, leaving it without the crucial body designed to integrate environmental policies into its domestic agenda and reach policy coherence. Let alone any pledges for emissions trade and climate change, Turkish delegations refrain from making any comments about this delicate and complex issue at any international platform.

climate protester
Extinction Rebellion climate change protesters call for action on climate change by staging an event against the fashion industry outside a shopping centre in Istanbul, Friday, Nov. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)


On the other hand, environmental concerns have raised significant public interest over the last decade, with large anti-government demonstrations sparked in 2013 by a small-scale protest over the redevelopment of an Istanbul park and thousands flocking to the Kaz Mountains in western Turkey to oppose a mining project this year.

But Turkey’s media, which media watchdog Reporters Without Borders estimates the vast majority of to be under the control of government-linked businesses, does not provide fertile ground for this public interest to translate to policy.

Global movements like the Fridays for Future demonstrations founded by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg have gone virtually unreported by Turkey’s mainstream press. Thunberg herself was targeted by a Turkish newspaper when she filed a complaint against Turkey for failing to stick to the emissions goals it pledged in the Paris conference. The Turkish daily Sabah called her “a project girl” and claimed that her secret agenda served a global conspiracy against Turkey. 

Yet Turkey is among the countries most deeply affected by climate change. Extreme weather events linked to climate change such as flash floods and heat waves are frequent in Turkey. According to a risk management report prepared by the Ministry of Environment and Urbanisation in cooperation with the UNDP and the Global Environment Facility in 2013, these events have more than doubled in the last decade.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.