Wind turbines on the island of Gökçeada in the western region of Turkey.
Image credit: canonim on

Turkey, the fastest-growing energy market in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and a nation of 85 million people, is expected to reach its Net Zero target by 2053.

This was promised by Turkey’s president to the United Nations General Assembly

after Turkey declared that it would be a party to the Paris Agreement in September 2021. Shortly thereafter, the Istanbul Policy Center (IPC), a global research institution, published the first-ever report on the country’s efforts to combat climate change to that point.

The IPC has followed Turkey’s decarbonization efforts since joining the Paris Agreement, and has found that the country’s Net Zero goal is feasible, if imperfect. In fact, with its high wind and solar capacity, it’s possible for Turkey not only to meet its own energy demand but also lead decarbonization efforts in Europe.

Policy and Renewable Energy Possibility

Following the IPC report, Turkey became the focus of similar studies by the World Bank Group’s Country Climate and Development Report, the United Nations Development Programme, and SHURA Energy Transition Center, which used its own methodology and found comparable results.

The main editor of the IPC report, Ümit Şahin, a senior scholar teaching Global Climate Change and Environmental Politics at Sabancı University and the coordinator of Climate Change Studies at IPC, noted that between 2018 and 2030, Turkey is planning to reduce its emissions by 32 percent before committing to over 70 percent reduction by 2050.

When it comes to the scenario of Net Zero, according to Şahin, “We assume technological and policy changes. They are phasing out coal, deploying three times more renewable energy. These are economic and technological policy options. These are assumptions supported by the government, but mostly it happens in the market.”

IPC does not take into account carbon capture system technologies or green hydrogen so as not to presuppose the effect of yet unrealized infrastructures. Their focus is on electrification because Turkey has the potential to meet its own energy demand—and even lead the way in Europe—in wind and especially solar capacity.

“With a vast amount of potential in renewable resources, hydropower, solar, wind, geothermal, Turkey should accelerate this transition to benefit economically,” said Ufuk Alparslan, who analyzes data on decarbonizing in Turkey, Ukraine, and the Balkans for Ember, a London-based global think tank.

“Turkey is still alone in negotiations. It is even easier to act alone.”

Alparslan compares Turkey’s renewable energy capacity with the greater European region, where solar power increases in the south and wind increases in the north. At around 11 percent, Turkey’s total wind power share is higher than many European countries, among the top 15. “When it comes to solar, we have one of the highest potentials in Europe,” according to Alparslan.

At less than 5 percent of its total power share, Turkey is lagging behind in Europe’s solar generation. “There is huge, untapped potential in terms of solar,” Alparslan explained. “It’s a distributed power source, which means you don’t need to set up a large energy company to be a part of this energy transition.” Alparslan also noted that the hydropower potential of Turkey is one of the highest in Europe.

Between Developed and Developing

The world’s remaining carbon budget is clear, according to reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In order to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees until the end of the century, Turkey’s share, at 1.37 percent (only for carbon emissions, not greenhouse gas), is based on its population, economy, and historical responsibility, the latter of which IPC found to be 0.7 percent of the world’s budget.

“If a country has a lower historical responsibility than its current responsibility it means that in the future it should have more of an allocation from the budget. This is based on fairness,” Şahin said, explaining how Turkey’s overall carbon budget represents a sweeping survey of separate nations’ emissions since the dawn of fossil fuel extraction.

Şahin argues that Turkey should have a greater share of the global carbon budget because it industrialized relatively late, despite its more recent ascent. “Our assumptions are based on phasing out fossil fuels. In 30 years, Turkey will not only exit coal, but most oil and gas. This is a challenge for every country. If you’re a fossil fuel producer like Russia, Iran, it’s more difficult.”

According to Şahin, “For Turkey it’s easier. Importing fossil fuel is an economic problem. You always want to be independent. Green transition is always good for an economy.” As a singular case among Annex I countries (industrialized countries and economies in transition party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), Turkey is categorized between developed and developing. “Turkey is still alone in negotiations. It is even easier to act alone.”

Since the earthquakes left southeastern Turkey in ruins on February 6, 2023, IPC is pressuring reconstruction to decarbonize the building sector, which the World Bank’s report showed is less efficient than the EU average; builders have merely upheld business-as-usual city planning.

At the end of last year, Turkey’s Minister of Energy published a new energy plan setting targets to curb carbon-emitting power generation until 2035. But it did not account for high emissions in transportation and building. “NGOs are influencing reconstruction plans,” Alparslan said of solar retrofitting in the earthquake zone. “But construction companies are not interested yet.”

After Alparslan published his report, Türkiye Electricity Review 2023, the transmission system operator—the responsible body for the electricity infrastructure in Turkey—raised the capacity allocated for solar to the highest it has ever been. “It was unexpected,” Alparslan said. “We contributed to this impact for sure.”

The Shift Away from Coal

Yet as a result of the war in Ukraine, EU embargoes led Turkey to become more dependent than ever on Russia’s oil, coal, and gas. Moreover, Turkey’s only nuclear plant, Akkuyu, is owned by Russia. As Russia exports fossil fuels to Turkey below global prices, economic pragmatism has opened doors for crony capitalist politicking.

“Turkey is coming to the point where we can integrate climate issues into mainstream policy.”

Turkey’s bottom line is still dependent on Russia’s fossil fuels, despite domestic coal ambitions that now face early obsolescence.

But according to Alparslan, “If we compare Turkey to other European countries, Turkey might be the luckiest in terms of renewable power potential. Turkey can domestically produce its electricity generation needs with renewable sources, and can easily accelerate this process.”

Alparslan found energy independence and saving on import bills to be more influential on policymakers than emissions reductions or global temperature. With 50 percent of Turkey’s exports going to the EU, the European Green Deal’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (which imposes carbon charges on imports coming into the EU) pushed Turkey to ratify the Paris Agreement and reduce coal power capacity by 90 percent.

“On paper, policy is shifting from coal to solar,” Alparslan said.

Changing these industrial narratives into workable climate policy is the work of research-oriented environmental NGO SEFiA (Sustainable Economics and Finance Association). Its founder, Bengisu Özenç, led similar projects at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey.

In the last decade, environmental NGOs and national discussions in Turkey have developed into climate-aware economic think tanks, including Ember and SEFiA. “We have very valued academicians working in the climate field, but they are not many,” Özenç noted. “It is important to translate the capacity of climate policy into economic policy actors’ agendas.”

“Turkey is coming to the point where we can integrate climate issues into mainstream policy,” said Özenç. “Science is saying to go Net Zero by midcentury. We didn’t have that kind of planning from the government [before]. After the Paris Agreement ratification, the government formed a climate council. These narratives, these reports, help us.”

SEFiA’s recent research investigated the relationship between renewables and inflation in Turkey’s economic development, modeling based on the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States. They found that if renewables are exploited, Turkey’s inflation rate would decrease by seven percent points. Özenç noted the power of such information: “We are strengthening the narrative, and it really works.”