The Republic of Turkey isn’t quite yet a century old, having emerged from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire on October 29, 1923. The country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — a military leader during World War I and the nation’s subsequent War of Independence — is well-known for his staunch secularist views and policies.
Heavily influenced by the French enlightenment, Atatürk set out to transform a poor agrarian country into a developed nation through industrialization and modernization. Countless leaders and parties have taken turns governing since his death in 1938, but catching up with the West has remained a top priority for most Turkish statesmen.
In power for the past two decades, current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party — known as the AKP in Turkish — are no exception.
While the AKP has broken away from Atatürk’s secular legacy (with the party’s elite rooted deeply in Islam), Turkey’s dedication to unbridled development has remained relentless. Not surprisingly, when it comes to the environment, Erdoğan’s party has fully embraced neoliberal ideology and set rapid economic growth as a chief goal.
“The emphasis of the AKP regime has always been on growth figures; we can even call it ‘growth fetishism.’” Within that framework, “it’s very easy to forget or undermine the likely social and ecological side effects,” Fikret Ataman, a professor of economics at the Bosphorus University in Istanbul, told Mongabay.
As Turkey plans its 100th anniversary celebration, some wonder what the nation’s environment will look like at its bicentennial. According to recent surveys, the population is overwhelmingly worried about escalating climate change impacts and the destruction of forests.
Projections by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are indeed pessimistic, predicting an increase in extreme events, rising temperatures and dehydration for Turkey. Temperatures in the Mediterranean area are rising about 20% faster than the global average which could even lead to parts of the region becoming unfit for human life.
But under the increasingly authoritarian AKP, Turkey has taken a conflicted position on climate change and environmental protection.
In an attempt to play a bigger role in global affairs, the nation has assumed a more assertive stance during international conferences, offering bold words. But Turkey’s climate actions fall far short. The best single policy illustration is the nation’s reluctance to ratify the 2015 Paris agreement. Despite being a founding member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECD), and being a G20 member, Ankara persistently lobbied to be included in the list of developing, rather than developed nations, in order to face less obligation in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
Turkey finally ratified the Paris accord last October, likely pushed to do so by geopolitical motives and an accumulation of extreme climate events at home, which include huge wildfires, intense drought and devastating floods.
Turkey’s resistance to climate action is nothing new. It took 12 years for the country to ratify the 1997 Kyoto protocol after it was given a special status as the only Annex-I Party that didn’t have mandatory greenhouse gas emission reductions targets. (Annex-I countries are defined as industrialized nations that are OECD members, as well as nations with economies in transition.)
“Even when Turkey became a party to global climate change frameworks, it refrained from binding commitments, negotiating to secure a special status,” wrote political ecologist Sinan Erensu in a 2018 article regarding the country’s contradictory energy and climate policies.
“Turkey’s hesitation sounds similar to many countries in the Global South.” Erensu explained. “As an emerging market economy, Turkey believes it is neither fair nor viable to expect from a developing country the kind of environmental commitment developed countries should undertake.” Since the AKP took power in 2002, the country has enjoyed sustained economic growth except in 2009 due to the global financial crisis.
Assertive climate action by Turkey remains absent. While per capita greenhouse gas emissions are still below most G20 countries — partly due to demographic growth — Turkey’s total carbon emissions skyrocketed during the past three decades, overtaking countries like France, Italy and Great Britain. Turkey’s carbon emissions increased by 138%, from 220 to 524 million tons of CO2 equivalent between 1990 and 2020.
Under the newly-ratified Paris agreement, Turkey has committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2053, but the government has yet to develop a comprehensive frameworkto achieve this goal. The independent scientific monitoring platform Climate Action Tracker has assessed Ankara’s policies and actions as “critically insufficient” and concludes that “under Turkey’s current policies, emissions will continue to rise and are consistent with more than 4°C warming;” that’s more than 7°F, by 2100.
2021’s Climate Transparency report states that Turkey is “not on track for a 1,5°C world.” Its rising carbon emissions are largely due to increasing energy emissions: “Producing electricity at a low cost has been Erdogan’s top priority,” Ataman said.
Despite a recent expansion in renewables, Turkey’s energy mix heavily relies on fossil fuels (83% in 2021). Activists have long criticized the country’s addiction to coal and the opening of new power plants. In twelve large Turkish regions, new coal-fired facilities are planned or already being built, according to OECD.
Turkey’s “increase in renewable capacity was not really a transition. It was basically an addition on top of already increased fossil fuel capacity,” explained Ethemcan Turhan, an assistant professor of environmental planning at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
The 1990s in Turkey were marred by political and economic instability. The biggest financial crisis occurred in 2001, and was followed by privatization and deregulation measures which were strengthened when Erdogan won the 2002 election.
Under the AKP, energy, transportation, construction, mining and industry became key sectors of the Turkish growth economy, with the new leadership creating an investor friendly legal structure. All those sectors are carbon-intensive, but government did little to minimize emissions.
“Turkey’s environmental governance has been gradually dismantled. We moved away from the Turkish state being the guardian of its natural assets for its society, to being an intermediary between the capital and the people,” Turhan said. “And at the end of the day, the state pulls itself out of this relationship, it simply paves the way for the capital to commodify the natural assets and turn them into money.”
These strategic business sectors have enjoyed wide support from the state through subsidies, unfair governmental bidding processes, and numerous questionable public-private partnerships. The proximity of political and business elites have led many observers to describe Erdoğan’s regime as crony capitalism.
The Istanbul-based research group Networks of Dispossession mapped the connections between state administrations, banks and a few big companies involved in highly profitable largescale infrastructure projects — projects dubbed as “crazy” by Erdoğan himself — including huge mines and mega-dams, power plants, bridges and airports.
One such mega-project serves as an example of Turkey’s developmental overreach: Istanbul’s third airport was built to sprawl over an immense area covering 76.5 square kilometers (29.5 square miles), and is almost four times the size of the JFK Airport in the United States. The land it consumed had been mostly forests, ponds and open fields.
Completed in 2018 and hailed as the “World’s biggest airport,” its environmental record appalled activists. According to official figures, 750 million cubic meters of soil was excavated and 7 million cubic meters of concrete poured during construction. The local grassroot movement Northern Forest Defense denounced the destruction of 13 million trees, causing irreversible damage to freshwater resources, air quality and biodiversity.
Climate change is just one of nine planetary boundaries identified by an international group of scientists by which humanity’s environmental progress can be measured. Utilizing this framework helps define the multifactorial nature of both environmental destruction and protection. Not all nine planetary boundaries have yet been quantified, and experts still argue about their relevance to assessments on a national or regional scale. But measuring these boundaries against Turkey’s unrestrained development gives a hint at the extent of the nation’s escalating environmental crisis.
The Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) — which elaborated the planetary boundaries framework — released a one-time-only assessment of national environmental performance in 2013. Just four boundaries had been quantified at that time; Turkey had transgressed all of them: climate change, nitrogen pollution, land-use change, and freshwater use (though only on the consumption per capita boundary, one of two indicators for freshwater use).
The University of Leeds is also providing an alternative assessment on national trends regarding eight planetary boundaries — slightly different than SRC — between 1992 and 2015. Over that period, Turkey went from exceeding three limits to five: including its ecological footprint, material footprint, climate change, phosphorus and nitrogen pollution.
Local environmental activists and researchers are now particularly concerned about high levels of air and plastic pollution as Turkey became the prime destination for European plastic waste after China banned those dirty imports in 2017.
One of the main ports receiving plastic waste shipments is Mersin in southern Turkey. As a result, “The northeastern Mediterranean coast is the most polluted area of the whole sea regarding microplastics,” Sedat Gundoğdu, a marine biologist heading a microplastics research group at the University of Çukurova in the nearby city of Adana, told Mongabay. “Imports are brought to recycling facilities that carry [out] illegal activities, as they can’t [properly] process the waste which is dumped and burned, [polluting] irrigation canals, rivers and agricultural areas. The air, the soil and water resources are polluted. Fishes, fruits and vegetables are also contaminated. Adana is an important agricultural region which exports its products to Europe.”