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Schrödinger's Cat: Turkiye's New Climate Policy

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By Karim Elgendy

· 6 min read

The last three months witnessed a dramatic transformation in Turkiye's climate policy. In the span of just a few weeks, Turkiye's climate policy shifted from a climate laggard with modest climate actions, to a regional climate pioneer with ambitious climate goals. It also shifted its position from being an emerging economy working hard to be recognised as a developing country in order to gain access to climate finance, into a country more at ease with being treated as a developed economy.

A new vision

It all started with Turkiye's parliament suddenly voting to ratify the Paris Agreement last October — weeks before COP26 and almost 5 years after the landmark climate accord came into force. Turkiye’s delay in ratification had been a negotiating leverage in its efforts to change its designation within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change (UNFCCC) from an ‘Economy in Transition’ — which prevents Turkiye from accessing UNFCCC climate finance — to a developing economy.

Remarkably, the ratification came after a climate finance agreement in principle was signed between Turkiye on one side, and the World Bank, The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the French and German development banks on the other. If finalised, the agreement allows Turkiye to secure $3 billion of non-UNFCCC climate finance, which Turkish officials were hopeful could unlock as much as $20 billion from multilateral development banks and the private sector.

Alone, this policy change could be seen as a mere change in approach in accessing the growing climate finance flows, a new engagement strategy, or simply a desire to have a seat at the table. But its timing and scope suggest there is an increased interest in focusing on climate action, which is unsurprising given the impacts of climate change on Turkiye’s economy, environment, and national security.

Alongside the ratification of the Paris Agreement, the Turkish Government announced plans to dramatically increase its climate ambitions, and to aim for carbon neutrality by 2053. According to senior Turkish officials, Turkiye plans to revise its climate pledge under the Paris agreement - known as the Nationally Determined Contribution - before COP27, with more ambitious carbon reduction targets that are aligned with this zero-carbon goal.

Drawing a roadmap

The measures and finance mechanisms that will be adopted in order to achieve carbon neutrality are yet to be defined, but some elements of the plan are already expected to feature prominently.

One of these elements is renewable energy. Renewable energy sources are already a major part of current carbon mitigation and energy independence policies. They are expected to expand in the coming years, especially given the increasing economic advantages of wind and solar power over fossil fuel — compared to existing coal and gas power plants. Today renewable energy sources represent almost 54% of the electricity generation capacity in Turkey.

The creation of an emission tracing scheme - along the lines of the European Union’s Emission Tradition System - has also been proposed by Turkish officials. This expected move is not only a climate measure, but it is also an attempt to respond to the European Union’s Green Deal and to avoid its impending carbon border tax (known as Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism or CBAM) which is will start coming into effect next year with full implementation expected by 2026. Given Turkish industries' high exposure to CBAM, putting a price on carbon locally is likely to be welcomed by many in order to avoid the EU carbon tax. In fact, Turkiye is the fifth most exposed country to CBAM due to its Cement, Iron, steel, Aluminium, and Electricity exports into the European Union (EU). 48% of Turkish exports go to the EU, and according to a recent study by Chatham House, 30% of the EU's CBAM-covered cement imports comes from Turkiye. The risk is so high to the Turkish economy that government officials suspect it was part of the rationale behind the policy u-turn.

Carbon sequestration is also expected to become an integral part of the plan, especially since it is in line with Turkiye’s ambitions forestation plans. For almost two decades, Turkiye has been working on afforestation projects to preserve its vulnerable soils from desertification and erosion. Over the last 18 years, it has planted over 5 billion trees and plans to reach 7 billion by the end of 2023. If achieved, this would increase the share of forests to a third of Turkiye’s land area.

The Turkish government will organize a council in Antalya later this year to consult stakeholders - including the private sector and civil society -, to discuss policy details, and to agree on how to achieve the 2053 decarbonisation target. Measures that are likely to be adopted also include raising energy efficiency targets in buildings. With turkey planning to rebuild 7.5 million units this decade — representing almost a third of all residential units in Turkiye today — a real opportunity presents itself for reducing energy use and carbon emissions by building more efficiently.

Transition stage or hedging?

Turkiye's climate policy u-turn couldn’t have come a moment too soon, and it seems to be developing at great speed to make up for the lost time. But the rapid transition alone may not explain all the mixed messages that are coming out of Turkiye.

Turkiye today seems to be more at ease with the same UNFCCC designation it has rejected since COP7. Remarkably, its negotiators did not bring up the subject during the COP26 negotiations. Turkiye also demonstrated a higher degree of coordination with negotiating blocks of developed — rather than developing — countries. As a country that usually negotiates alone, it was notable how publicly supportive of EU positions it became.

Yet Turkiye still seems to be hedging its bets and keeping its options open. As it ratified the Paris Agreement, the Turkish parliament attached a declaration which notes that Turkiye will implement the accord ‘as a developing country’, despite its current designation.

For years, Turkiye’s status in climate action was often described as ‘in limbo’ and its actions as ‘disturbing’ the climate negotiation process due to the imposed designation. Turkiye's current chief negotiator has even described his own country’s past positions as having been a ‘troublesome country’.

In 2022, Turkiye has ambitious climate goals, is drafting new climate legislation, developing transition roadmaps, and ramping up climate action. However, its hedging position remains confusing.

Like Schrödinger's cat — the quantum mechanics notion that a cat can be considered simultaneously both dead and alive — Turkiye today is both a developed country and a developing country with no clarity as to which it will go. Maintaining this position during the upcoming climate summits in Sharm El-Sheikh and Abu Dhabi, with their very distinct approaches, might prove untenable.

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Karim Elgendy is an Associate Fellow with Chatham House, a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, and the founder of Carboun.

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