Turkey’s authoritarian development ignores planetary boundaries
Representational image

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.

  • Turkey, an increasingly autocratic country since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP political party came to power in 2002, was the very last G20 nation to ratify the Paris climate agreement, doing so in October 2021. It has failed so far to take meaningful action against the steady increase of its greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Turkey may also be exceeding limits to many of the nine planetary boundaries critical to the survival of civilization. In addition to unregulated carbon emissions, experts are concerned over the nation’s worsening air and plastic pollution, altered land use due to new mega-infrastructure projects, and biodiversity harm.
  • For the past two decades, Turkey’s economic growth has been based on carbon-intensive sectors — including fossil fuel energy, transportation, construction, mining and heavy industry — all heavily supported by the state via subsidies, questionable public-private partnerships, and lax environmental laws.
  • Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authoritarianism has undermined checks and balances which might otherwise enhance environmental governance. As activists and academics criticize the lack of transparency regarding environmental data, they face rising governmental pressures and repression.

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.

The Istanbul Çağlayan Justice Palace
The Istanbul Çağlayan Justice Palace, a courthouse inaugurated in 2011. The billboard claims the building is the largest courthouse in Europe. Image by Clément Girardot.

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 wildfiresintense drought and devastating floods.

Demonstration demanding climate action on İstiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main avenue. Environmental protestors and activists are frequently harassed and sometimes persecuted by the Turkish government. Image by Clément Girardot.

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.

Construction of Istanbul’s Zorlu Center, a multi-use complex which includes a large shopping mall. Image by Clément Girardot.

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 framework to 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.

Dense smog over Istanbul. The nation of Turkey straddles Asia and Europe and has been historically considered a crossroads of the world where East meets West. Image by Rob Williams via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Unsustainable growth, regulatory dismantlement

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.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, at a G20 meeting in 2018. Turkey was the last G20 nation to ratify the Paris climate agreement, doing so in October 2021. Image by G20 Argentina via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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.

Dam construction in Turkey’s northeastern Artvin province — a prime location for several hydroelectric power station projects due to its wet climate and mountainous terrain. Image by Clément Girardot.

Transgression of planetary boundaries?

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.”

Stagnant water in the Golden Horn, an estuary connected to the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul. Water pollution is a major problem for Turkey. Image by Clément Girardot.
Intensive farming in southern Turkey near the seaside resort of Fethiye. Agribusiness with its overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is a problem in Turkey, as it is in many other nations. Image by Clément Girardot.

Authoritarianism fuels destruction

While most observers argue that Erdoğan’s turn toward authoritarianism occurred after the 2011 general election, and even more so after the 2016 failed coup attempt, his policies have aggressively favored economic interests over the environment and social demands from the start.

“He was authoritarian in the sense that he was imposing his neoliberal agenda in a very strict manner, for example, through suppressing workers’ strikes and local environmental movements,” Ataman explained. To push industrialization and foreign investment, Erdogan created dozens of “organized industrial zones” where companies could not only enjoy lower taxes but also lax environmental regulations.

Mines, dams and big infrastructure projects have also increasingly benefitted from an expropriation regulation inherited from the World War II era. “This urgent expropriation law allows the government to take over your land within seven days and then rent it out to an investor,” Turhan said. “These measures have been used to suppress any kind of social opposition. Landowners do get their money, but it’s not with mutual consent; it’s basically a takeover from the government.”

Erdoğan also amended Turkey’s mining law in 2004, which led to a sharp increase in the allocation of permits to dig in forest areas.

In addition, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process was amended to pave the way for lucrative but destructive investments. “97 percent to 98% of all EIA applications are actually approved at some stage,” Turhan revealed. “The AKP has simply turned [EIAs] into a bureaucratic procedure. And even so, [when] companies were [still] not able to comply, they asked the government to amend the EIA procedure. Thus, the EIA law was indeed changed numerous times mainly to allow capital to find those legal loopholes and bypass the Environmental Impact Assessment process.”

Quarries along the Orçi River near the city of Arhavi on the Black Sea coast. Mega-infrastructure construction projects are well supported financially by the government and such projects see little serious environmental oversight. Image by Clément Girardot.
Air pollution recorded over Turkey in 2017 and 2018. Air quality is persistently poor across Turkey, with hazardous, unhealthy levels of pollution. One local study found that exposure to air pollution in Istanbul was associated with increased respiratory hospital admissions from 2013-2015. Lack of transparency regarding government data related to air pollutants, climate change, and other issues has made it difficult for the public to respond to Turkey’s environmental problems, according to NGOs. Image by Berkeley Earth via CareOurEarth.com.

Intimidation and repression

Opposing Erdoğan’s destructive projects and investments often comes with a high price, with environmental activists and scholars not immune from the president’s repressive grip. In 2013, mass protests forced Erdoğan to call off his plan to destroy Gezi Park in central Istanbul, but police violence led to 11 fatalities and thousands of injuries. Since then, Erdoğan has retaliated against the movement’s leading figures linked to Istanbul’s thriving civil society. Last April, philanthropist Osman Kavala was sentenced to life in prison in the notorious Gezi trial. Seven other activists, including one urban planner and an architect, were given 18 years jail sentences.

The work of activists and researchers is also constrained by the lack of access to trustable public data. TURKSTAT, for example, the national statistical institute is under growing criticism for concealing the true extent of Turkey’s inflation.

In response to complaints, the ruling party is preparing a bill to restrict the publication of independent data on a number of indicators; economic researchers ignoring that law could face up to three years in jail for publishing unapproved statistics. In its latest report on Turkey’s coal pollution, the Health and Environment Alliance, an NGO, denounced the government’s lack of transparency, especially for not releasing data related to air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions from coal burning power plants.

“Those who claim to have exact statistics on the environment and health in Turkey are lying, there are no such [available] statistics,” Gundoğdu said. “We simply cannot produce reliable publications based on public data. For instance, when you request statistics on waste, they don’t have them because there is no waste sorting system. They’re just putting some numbers in the official documents and nobody is asking.”

An area undergoing urban renewal in the Black Sea city of Trabzon. Erdoğan is known for his mega-infrastructure projects. Image by Clément Girardot.
Gezi Park in Central Istanbul after mass protests to save it from destruction succeeded in 2013. Image by Clément Girardot.

A centenary marked by a worsening economic crisis

2023, the centenary of the Turkish Republic, was supposed to serve as the climax of Erdoğan’s authoritarian developmentalism strategy, with the inauguration of his biggest project: Kanal Istanbul, a 45 km (28 mile) canal running parallel to the Bosphorus Strait.

Its EIA was finally approved in 2020, but construction hasn’t started, apparently due to the country’s deepening financial and economic crisis. Erdoğan, his critics note, may finally be coming up against boundaries to his ambition.

“You have to excavate millions of tons of soil in order to open up that waterway,” Turhan said. “That requires an enormous amount of investment, and [the canal] needs to have a payback. Turkey doesn’t have that money today. So it has been looking for investments stretching all the way from China to the Gulf, but they have not managed to secure them and I don’t think they will.”

Still, Erdoğan consistently refuses to revise his “unorthodox” and excessive monetary policies, which have led to national hyper-inflation and impoverishment for many. Some experts hope an opposition victory in the 2023 general election may help turn the tide, preventing both an economic and environmental collapse.

But Erdogan’s opposition doesn’t have solid pro-environment credentials either:

“Environmental issues have not been on Erdoğan’s agenda, but that dimension is also not clearly present on the agenda of other parties, putting aside the marginal Green Party,” Ataman said. The biggest crisis since 2001, when it comes, might just present another opportunity for Turkey’s leadership to press its neoliberal agenda, favor private investors, and send growth statistics soaring — with the country’s people and environment paying the price.

This article by  Clément Girardot was republished from Mongabay

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