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Turkey Learns Green Lessons

It was mid-afternoon in the ancient city of Ephesus and the temperature was hitting 115°F. The marble walls reflected the heat, turning the ruins into a huge solar cooker. Wilting tourists scuttled from one tree-shaded oasis to the next. And we were part of the sweating horde cowering in the shade.

We had arrived in Istanbul in July, just in time for the national elections, which pitted the ruling Justice and Development Party against five other major parties. But the big news in Turkey and elsewhere in Europe wasn’t politics, it was the weather – fires in Greece, hundreds of heat deaths in Romania, epic floods in Britain. “We need rain,” a shopkeeper in Pergamon told me. Two days earlier, a freak snowstorm had dusted eastern Turkey.

When conversations did turn to politics, one leading question was how the July vote might influence Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. As Turkish environmentalists were quick to point out, Turkey won’t win the imprimatur of Western respectability that EU membership confers unless it improves its environmental record. Turkey enacted its first environmental law in 1983 and established a Ministry of the Environment in 1991, but the EU’s 2000 report card gave Turkey low marks on air and water quality, waste management, industrial pollution, and conservation.

One of the biggest challenges involves the 45,000 vessels – 10 percent of which are oil tankers – that navigate the 19-mile-long Bosporus Strait. The narrow channel averages three accidents per month. A 1979 collision killed 43 and dumped 95,000 tons of oil into the water – 2.5 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill. A 1994 collision released 20,000 tons of oil that set the strait ablaze for five days.

In 2004, Turkey joined the ranks of the “advanced developing countries” when, for the first time, its greenhouse gas emissions topped 300 million tons. Since 1992, energy consumption has increased by more than 24 percent. Despite its booming economy, Turkey still has the lowest CO2 emissions and energy consumption per capita among International Energy Agency countries.

Because its mountain ranges capture abundant rainfall, Turkey remains one of the world’s breadbaskets. There are only 75 agriculturally self-sufficient countries on Earth, and Turkey is one of them. The government plans to build hundreds of new dams to generate clean electricity. But the controversial $1.6 billion Ilusu dam on the Tigris would cut the flow of water to Iraq and Syria, violating a law that requires permission from downstream countries before such dams are built. Meanwhile, plans for three nuclear plants face bitter opposition from environmentalists who say that simply modernizing Turkey’s electric grid would be far smarter.

Turkey is spiffing up its environmental cred with an ambitious 20-year reforestation program. The World Bank has offered Turkey €150 billion (US$219 billion) for “green energy” projects. But when it comes to installed solar power, Turkey leaves the US in the shade. Turkey’s skyline is dominated by three elements:minarets, satellite dishes, and solar hot-water tanks. These solar water-heaters are rugged, efficient, and ubiquitous. There are millions of them.

The country’s preeminent environmental organization – Regional Environmental Center (REC) Turkey – opened its Ankara office in May 2004 with a mandate to tackle “climate change, nature protection, education for sustainable development and eco-tourism.” Turkish officials recently engaged REC to help Ankara meet the environmental goals required for EU membership.

Turkey still hasn’t signed the Kyoto Protocol, so, in advance of a July visit by Al Gore, REC Turkey gathered 150,000 pro-Protocol signatures in less than six weeks. In 2006, REC Turkey debuted the country’s “most comprehensive” climate change Web site (www. REC has distributed thousands of educational posters and cleverly inserted 70,000 copies of its brochure about climate change into the Turkish edition of National Geographic. REC’s Green Pack, “a multi-medium environmental education curriculum kit” for primary school teachers and students, includes a Teacher’s Handbook, a DVD, and an interactive CD-ROM.

For a US environmentalist accustomed to pinching pennies and battling government agencies, REC Turkey was a revelation – an environmental organization that is flush with euros and working with the government on critical issues of common concern. The activists at REC Turkey appear to be up to the challenge but, as Pavel Antonov, editor of the Hungary-based magazine Green Horizons, recently wrote: “Given the amount of nature there is to protect, and the variety of threats it faces, [Turkey’s] civil society movement has a lot of work to do.”

Gar Smith is the editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal. For the full “Report from Turkey,” go to


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