Forest fire in Turkey's Antalya

Aerial efforts to extinguish the fire in Manavgat district of Antalya in Turkey

Ankara is preparing to ratify the Paris Agreement: Is that enough?

After years of refusal, President Erdoğan recently declared that Ankara will finally ratify the Paris Agreement. Kadri Tastan explains the reasons behind this resistance and why ratification alone will not be enough to actively engage Turkey in the fight against climate change.

Point of View, 28.09.2021
  • Kadri Tastan

Turkey went through a terrible summer from an ecological point of view: The country has been experiencing unprecedented wildfires caused by heat waves and droughts that have devastated forests in the southwestern part of Anatolia, while floods have been hitting the north and east. The disasters obviously also have unprecedented economic and social consequences, all of which are raising concerns about Turkey’s vulnerability to environmental crises and climate change and Ankara’s ability to cope with them.

Already in 2011, the Turkish authorities, in the National Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan, realized that Turkey’s location in the Mediterranean basin made it more susceptible to arid conditions and heat waves resulting from climate change, citing the 4th IPPC report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In its 6th report, published in August, the IPPC concludes that climate change is already creating many extreme weather and climate events in all regions of the world and that they are intensifying in an unprecedented way.

Despite these bitter observations, Ankara has long refrained from ratifying the Paris Agreement. The legally binding international treaty was signed with the central objective of limiting global warming to well below 2°C and continuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. But recently, President Erdoğan declared the country’s intention to ratify the Paris Agreement before the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which is to open in Glasgow on 31 October.

The mindset of the Turkish government can help to explain its inadequate efforts to address the climate crisis, but to understand this resistance on the part of Ankara, one should look at Turkey’s problematic position in the global climate change regime.

Lack of domestic commitment

Climate change has never been a priority for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Its growth-oriented economic and energy policies of the past 20 years have followed a development model that prioritizes economic gains while ignoring their environmental consequences. Already realized projects such as the Istanbul Airport or planned projects such as the Istanbul Canal are only a few examples of this vision. Another is the priority given to the use of coal. It is still the third-largest source of primary energy in Turkey after oil and natural gas, and coal-related emissions have increased by almost 32 percent over the last decade. Total greenhouse gas emissions increased by 137 percent between 1990 and 2018, and the government does not currently have a target year for peaking emissions or for reducing emissions in absolute terms. Moreover, Turkey contends, like many other less-developed countries, that it only has a negligible responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions – and hence should do less than fully industrialized countries, which have a huge historical responsibility for anthropogenic climate change.

Turkey’s special circumstances

In 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change (UNFCCC) was adopted, as a member of the OECD – and without any objection from Turkish officials at that time – Turkey was listed in both Annex I and Annex II of the UNFCCC. These countries, which are generally richer and more developed, are expected to take the lead in combating climate change. But most importantly, Annex II countries should also provide financial support to “developing” countries that are in the “non-Annex I” group and have fewer obligations. Turkey was therefore theoretically obliged to reduce its emissions and help “developing countries” such as Brazil, South Korea, and China. As a result of Turkey’s diplomatic efforts, the country was finally removed from Annex II in 2001, but it is still listed in Annex I, which means that Turkey is not obliged to contribute to climate finance, but it cannot benefit from financial support either.

As a consequence, during the Conference of the Parties in Paris in 2015, Ankara said it would not sign the agreement if its demand was not taken into account. Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande had to intervene to convince President Erdoğan to sign the agreement. But before ratifying the Paris Agreement, Ankara wanted to be removed from the list of developed countries of the UNFCCC and receive financial assistance for climate change mitigation. Obviously, Turkey’s behavior carries a cost in the form of ecological costs to Turkey and the surrounding region as well as negative impacts on the Turkish economy and global efforts against climate change.

Getting Turkey on board

The effects of climate change will require significant changes in geo-economic policies at the European and global levels. The EU is already progressively integrating climate factors into its external economic relations, which will change the way it trades with its partner. The EU’s planned carbon border tax, called the Border Carbon Adjustment Mechanism, would be a significant tool in this strategy and affect Turkey’s trade relations with the EU if Turkey fails to decarbonize its economy. Turkey conducts half of its trade with the EU. The decarbonization would therefore also be an economic and strategic requirement for Turkey in terms of its trade and other relations with the EU.

The ratification of the Paris Agreement will be the first positive step toward joining the international coalition to fight climate change, and it should also been seen as part of Turkey’s charm offensive toward the West. This effort will not be complete if Ankara does not make concrete mitigation commitments by submitting a new and more ambitious version of its Nationally Determined Contributions.

It seems that Ankara can be motivated to take such moves and be actively involved in the fight against climate change through financial assistance. The EU can play an important role here. It should effectively use its financial and diplomatic powers to secure these outcomes. After all, bringing Turkey on board in the global fight against climate change is also in the interest of the EU, which has the leadership role in achieving the objectives of the Paris Agreement. This would not only contribute toward global mitigation efforts, but also increase Turkey’s resilience and preparedness for the ecological crises that will only worsen with climate change.

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