Coal’s not cool: Energy and Turkey’s reputation

Coal’s not cool: Energy and Turkey’s reputation

In the face of the upcoming Paris climate summit in December, important actors have moved forward with ambitious climate and energy plans – the EU has decided on new targets for 2030, and U.S. President Barack Obama has announced a Clean Power Plan to substantially reduce CO2 emissions from power plants. 

Other states need to contribute to a global solution, too. This is particularly true for emerging economies such as China, India, and Brazil. They are key to global energy transition, because the profound economic transformation they are experiencing calls for substantial investments in energy infrastructure. During the coming years, these states will therefore “lock in” either unsustainable or sustainable energy pathways, and it is important that do the latter. Also in Turkey the future sustainability of energy systems is at stake today.

Turkey’s ambitions to become a more important player on the international stage are intrinsically linked to its domestic energy policies. In a context of growing demands for serious climate action, however, secure and affordable energy is not enough anymore. As long as a larger Turkish economy is a dirty one, it might not result in growing international importance. For long-term international leadership, Turkey needs to develop a genuinely sustainable energy strategy. 

To meet future energy needs, Turkey has formulated an ambitious energy plan to be realized by 2023. Renewable energy sources are envisaged to contribute 30 percent to electricity generation. The recent National Renewable Energy Action Plan (NREAP) holds that Turkey aims to expand its renewable energy production capacity from 25.58 GW in 2013 to 61 GW in 2023. It also raises targets for some renewable energy sources such as solar, geothermal, and biomass. The NREAP numbers appear to signal an increasing focus on renewable energy. Nevertheless, the practice of Turkish energy development shows a somewhat different picture. 

First, the great reliance on hydropower has been criticized repeatedly. Hydro projects can change river flows, negatively affect ecosystems, and lead to the loss of agricultural land and cultural sites. They can also force local populations to relocate, as it has become apparent in the context of the Ilısu Dam in Southeast Turkey. 
Given Turkey’s great renewable energy potential furthermore, non-hydro renewables targets are comparatively unambitious. Turkey ranks first amongst European countries with regard to hydropower, wind, and geothermal potential and second with regard to solar power potential. However, more than 90 percent of Turkey’s renewable energy potential remains untapped. 

Second, the implementation of renewable energy targets has proven to be challenging in practice. The licensing of new projects has been argued to be too complex and time consuming, which has frustrated both small local and larger international investors. Despite the phenomenal growth of its overall energy market, the attractiveness of Turkey for renewable energy investment is average at best. In Ernst & Young’s Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index, Turkey ranks 19th out of 40 states.

The third and greatest spoiler regarding a sustainable Turkish energy future is the country’s treatment of coal. The financing of coal projects is said to have become one of the Turkish banking sector’s priorities, and governmental financial support for coal substantially exceeds financial help for renewable technologies. If the Turkish government should follow through on its coal policies, this might increase energy sector carbon emissions by almost 150 percent by 2023. 

In the future, international climate policy can be expected to make fossil resources more expensive and less attractive for investors. Moreover, given the increasing importance of sustainable energy solutions in the fight against climate change, the excessive use of fossil resources is likely to become a substantial burden for a country’s reputation. A “dash for coal,” to put it more bluntly, would be a certain death knell for a truly sustainable Turkish energy future and would thus compromise any Turkish attempt to position itself as a forward-looking political actor. 

Dr. Jörn Richert is assistant professor for energy governance at the Institute of Political Science at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. This is an abridged version of the original article in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Summer 2015 issue.