05/27/2014 05:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Future of Energy in Turkey, Part II

Over the next eight to twelve months, David Kroodsma and Lindsey Fransen are riding their bikes across parts of Asia, and sharing what they learn about the climate issues facing the countries they bike through.

When in Istanbul, we visited the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and learned about how Turkey's official plan is to expand renewables, nuclear power, coal, and hydropower. This week, in Ankara, we met with a number of advocates and experts, and gained a fuller appreciation for Turkey's energy and climate future.

We were lucky to have many conversations in Ankara. We met with three members of Ekoloji Kolektifi, an environmental collective, and talked generally about environmental issues in Turkey. We also spoke with Erdal Apaçik, who sits on the board of the Electrical Engineers Chamber, as their organization is opposing nuclear power plants in the country, and we wanted to learn about Turkey's energy politics. We spoke with professors at ODTU, one of Turkey's top universities, about sea level rise, changing precipitation patterns, and the effects of climate change on Turkey's lakes. We met with Onder Algedik, a consultant who has also helped organize events for the local chapter of (including an awesome bike event a few years ago). And we had dinner with Mustafa Berke, who works on climate issues for WWF in Turkey, and Göksen Sahin, who is the environment policy coordinator and climate policy officer for TEMA (Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion, for Reforestation and the Protection of Natural Habitats), Turkey's largest environmental group (they claim 500,000 volunteers, or about one out of every 140 Turks).

We had fewer meetings with scientists than we would have liked, but the basic message was pretty simple: It will get drier and warmer in most of Turkey, affecting ecosystems and water management, and structures built along its long coastline will need to be protected or rethought as sea levels rise. The details, though, are unclear, and the scientists emphasized the uncertainties -- we aren't sure how much precipitation will change, or how quickly sea levels will rise.

From the advocates, what we saw was environmental movements opposing various energy development projects, with the fight against nuclear power and new hydropower plants being perhaps the strongest movements. Turkey currently has no nuclear power, but one plant, developed by Russia, is currently under construction, and another, to be built by Japanese engineers, is mostly approved. Both, however, are delayed. When we were walking through the streets of Ankara, we even saw three Greenpeace activists trying to raise money and gain members. They spoke very little English, but they talked first and foremost about opposing nuclear power.

Our conversation at the Chamber of Electrical Engineers was also interesting. Erdal Apaçik, whom we spoke with, sits on the board of the Chamber's national assembly. He told us through an interpreter that nuclear power was unsafe, not secure, and expensive, and that the waste problem had not been sorted out. He argued that Turkey has a horrible safety record in different parts of society (and I don't doubt it -- I've seen countless construction sites where no one wears a hard hat, and the incident in the Soma coal mine doesn't boost confidence, either), and that they are also very prone to earthquakes -- two strong arguments against nuclear power. He also argued that they had to use outside technology and uranium, instead of using Turkish resources. When we asked Erdal what types of energy projects should be built, he said that energy efficiency was the biggest resource, and added that renewables such as solar and wind should also be developed.

Onder Algedik, who has worked with and also consults for the World Bank, told me how he organized 50 people to lobby members of the Turkish government to act more aggressively on climate change. Whereas in Istanbul I was told that the best Turkey could do in the next two decades was to grow its emissions more slowly, Onder told me that they could actually cut emissions by 15 percent. His explanation was similar to Erdal's: Turkey is horribly inefficient, and can save immense amounts of energy, thus cutting emissions. (After our interview, I had this run in with tear gas).

Over dinner with Mustafa Berke of WWF in Turkey and Göksen Sahin of TEMA, we had an informal conversation about energy issues in the country. We talked a good deal about hydropower plants. The country has plans on the books to almost double its hydropower capacity, but almost all new power will come from small dams and run-of-the-river style hydropower. The run-of-the-river plants, in theory, are supposed to be better for the environment, as they leave water in the river. In practice, some of them have actually taken all of the water out of the river (when I spoke with the president of the Turkish Water Institute in Istanbul, he acknowledged that many of them had been poorly implemented, even if they were good designs).

Mustafa explained that the number of power plants "on the books" is much, much greater than the number that will be built -- some may not pass their environmental reviews, and many face strong public opposition. We got the impression from most of our conversations that opposition is usually ignored - for example, the dam on the Ilisu River that will flood the current and historical town of Hasankeyf, has gone forward despite local and international pressure. However, people seemed confident that many of these projects will be built -- some advocates in the northeast of Turkey, where numerous new reservoirs are planned, believe that only one in seven of the government's planned dams will be built.

In the meantime, the country is busy building more coal and natural gas infrastructure. Natural gas is expensive and puts the country at the mercy of Russia, which provides a large quantity of the country's gas. And coal is perhaps the absolute worst energy source for climate change -- in addition to its more immediate human cost, as shown by the recent mining disaster. There is some opposition to these sources of energy (and the opposition to coal might be stronger after the recent disaster), but as some of the advocates told us, there is less opposition to them than to nuclear and hydropower.

The question that Lindsey and I keep asking ourselves is this: What is good for Turkey, and what is good for the world? People understandably don't want a nuclear power plant in their backyard, or for their land to be flooded or their rivers destroyed. But a country like Turkey is likely going to need more energy, even if it manages to become far more efficient. Turkey contributes only about one percent of global emissions. Why should they sacrifice their rivers and towns, and take risks with nuclear power that many in the US are unwilling to accept, for the global good?

Obviously, we should all act together -- every coal plant built in Turkey, or anywhere, locks in a certain amount of carbon emissions for several decades. But these environmental movements feel so local. And talking with everyone, it seems that climate change is extremely low on everyone's list of priorities. And with all the talk about efficiency and the country's vast solar potential, why are coal, gas, hydropower, and nuclear being pushed so aggressively? We will continue to answer these questions as we travel.