Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Turkish Conundrum

Of the many tensions that bedevil the climate change movement, one of the thorniest involves the rapidly developing economies--the ones just below the level of the OECD. These latter countries, notably the US and the EU, for the most part peaked in their greenhouse emissions around the 2008 global recession, and have remained below that level for various reasons: their economies have never fully recovered, their carbon reduction strategies, including fracking for natural gas, have continued to expand, and they have exported whole sectors of energy-intensive manufacturing, replacing these carboniferous jobs with cleaner hi-tech ones. It becomes easier for the US or Europe to promise increasing reductions when these are happening anyway, while the challenge to rein in the emissions of expansive economies in China, India, or Brazil is of a wholly other order.

Turkey, for example. Ranked 18th among the world's nations in GDP--if Turkey had been admitted to the EU, it would be its 6th largest economy--Turkey's growth over several decades has been rapid and continuous, an engine for growth throughout central Asia and beyond. But as The Guardian noted in a detailed article a few days ago, Turkey's expansion is largely fueled by coal, and will be for the foreseeable future. It has 80 new coal-fired power plants in the planning stages, including the world's largest, now under construction at Afsin-Elbistan. Unlike most other Turkish power plants, which run on imported gas or coal, Afsin-Elbistan will burn locally produced--and particularly noxious--lignite coal, despite protests grounded in public health concerns.

What sense does this make? Turkey has an abundance of solar and wind potential, but plans to draw only 5% of its power from solar over the next decade. Wind and geothermal projects exist, but Turkey's emphasis has been to increase capacity, regardless of source, to maintain growth. In 2009 Turkey requested and received an exemption from filing alternative energy goals, even non-binding ones, with the UNFCCC at Copenhagen. To date it has not presented a voluntary INDC plan for Paris, but has issued statements emphasizing the 'differentiated' nature of national obligations--i.e., newly arrived players like Turkey claim reduced obligations, on the (not unreasonable) grounds that they have historically contributed much less to the atmospheric problem.

So we can agree: nations like Turkey (and India and China in particular, and the whole developing world in principle) bear less responsibility, and have greater needs to expand their energy sectors, than the 'old money' nations such as ours. And Turkey in particular is not going to be pushed.  On the other hand, as The Guardian makes clear, health concerns alone should raise doubts about a coal-based strategy. Furthermore, Turkey--which will chair a G20 meeting later this year, just before Paris--wants to be understood as a regional power and a distinguished citizen of the global republic. Isn't there some way these converging interests--public health, climate, sovereignty (as alternative sources are inherently national), and diplomacy--enough to divert Turkey's myopic coal policy?

The rather detailed Climate Action plan Turkey published in 2011 seems to recognize these realities--both the magnitude of its challenges and the need to address them, for reasons both national and international, but still the plan starts by citing Turkey's "special circumstances." That phrase seems to allude to the young and burgeoning Turkish population, the urgency to continue economic expansion, and its dangerous dependence on foreign energy--mainly Russian gas. But the report also notes Turkey's renewable potential--wind, solar, and geo-thermal. What's missing is the financial link: Turkey has made clear its need for global financing, for example from the Green Climate Fund, to realize its alternative energy potential. In that sense, is the proposed expansion of coal-fired energy something of a threat, a bluff even? Could Turkey be led by international finance toward a more responsible energy plan?

Unwinding the complexities of this situation may be the most important challenge in the whole UNFCCC process. Domestic politics in the US or China or India loom large, but the expansive, explosive reality of emissions from rapidly growing but underdeveloped economies may pose both the greatest threat and the greatest opportunity for solutions. One can only hope that negotiations on this front are happening right now, so that Turkey's plan for Paris offers some concrete progress. Otherwise our future may be as dark as that lignite smoke belching from smokestacks all over Anatolia.

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