2019 was year of policy, 2020 to be year of action for greener Turkey, deputy environment minister says

Published 02.01.2020 09:52
Children in Turkey's southern Mu?la province plant saplings as part of the National Forestation Day organized by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry on Nov. 11, 2019 AA Photo
Children in Turkey's southern Mu?la province plant saplings as part of the National Forestation Day organized by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry on Nov. 11, 2019 (AA Photo)

While 2019 was packed with environmental laws, regulations, initiatives and technology, 2020 is expected to be a year of green action with the participation of all levels of government, local administrations, NGOs and the public

What do a fully domestically produced electrical car, an action plan for smart cities, a national forestation campaign and new public gardens have in common? They are all part of the initiatives undertaken by Turkey in 2019 to ensure a greener future for the next generation. While the government focused on passing crucial legislation on environmental concerns in the past year, its task in 2020 will be to take action and enforce the legislation, Deputy Minister of Environment and Urban Development Mehmet Emin Birpınar told Daily Sabah.

Turkey has embraced a progressive environmental policy in 2019 with the adoption and implementation of a green approach by all levels of the government. The country began taking concrete action on some of the most important issues facing humanity, including environmental degradation, climate change and a lack of resources to meet everyday needs like energy and water. The past year was a bright one as the Turkish government made progress through projects to address environmental concerns while raising awareness through numerous public campaigns urging more people to play a part; 2020 will be even brighter as it will be a year of action for environmental change, Dr. Birpınar said.

An action plan for smart cities, the creation of public gardens, advancement in renewable energy sources, a record-breaking national forestation campaign, the introduction of the long-awaited fully electric car, the significant rise in environmental fines and the introduction of smart cities were some of the highlights of 2019 in the country.

But all of this is not enough, according to the deputy environment minister, who said keeping up with constant change is key to dealing with the environment's shifting nature, which requires dynamic policies for protection and preservation.

"We passed the necessary legislation in 2019, and 2020 will be the year of implementation," Birpınar said, adding that the changes will be felt everywhere in the country next year, including in homes, offices, schools, public institutions and more.

"We act with the mindset that we did not inherit the world from our ancestors but we are borrowing it from future generations," he said, adding that the government aims to not only pass legislation but to actively implement it to ensure future generations have access to clean air, water and resources.

Turkey first passed its environmental law in 1983 and did not make major changes to it until 2006, after the discovery of hundreds of barrels filled with hazardous chemical waste in Istanbul's Tuzla district on the Asian side.

"We were able to pass extensive revisions on environmental legislation after the incident caused public outcry," the deputy minister said, adding that the government passed another set of extensive legislation in the past year.

Caring for the environment not only protects resources but it also acts as a preventive measure for maintaining good health, according to the deputy minister.

Birpınar noted that greater investment in the environment pays off in the long term as it ensures a healthier society and prevents disasters.

Meanwhile, a joint protocol signed between the education ministry and the Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion (TEMA) educated over 400,000 people on the environment, as more people and nongovernmental organizations strive to take action in this regard.

The minister added that "2020 will be the year when we implement the legislation at our homes, offices, schools and everywhere else."

OECD Report

The OECD Environmental Performance Reviews: Turkey 2019 report acknowledges that Turkey strengthened the framework necessary to address environmental problems and substantially upgraded its environmental regulations in the past year.

"Turkey has made progress in relatively decoupling its strong economic growth from air emissions, energy use, waste generation and water consumption," the report said, lauding the country's efforts. However, the OECD warned that pressure is increasing amid economic and population growth.

Air quality

As a result of the local and national-level steps taken by the government in recent years, regulations on air pollution now comply with the limits set by the European Union.

The preparation of clean air action plans for the cities was one of the steps that the Turkish government took in the past year, creating plans in 64 provinces.

The ministry monitors actions specified in the plans through web-based software and can track progress through it, according to the deputy minister.

"We have created seven regional clean air centers and have 339 clean air monitoring stations in 81 provinces," he said.

But the air quality monitoring is not restricted to the provincial level, as the government developed models to keep an eye on it at the district, neighborhood and vicinity levels. This allows them to specify which sectors contribute to pollution and receive reports on the extent of their pollution.

Turkey also tracks exhaust emissions through an online system and has increased the number of measuring devices by 47% from around 6 million to 9 million.

A plate-based revolutionary system also went into effect to determine those who refuse to put their vehicles through compulsory emissions tests.

"We will be creating low-emissions areas in cities with heavy traffic congestion and are increasing bicycle roads," Birpınar said, adding that they aim to increase the 1,000 kilometers of bicycle paths to 4,000 kilometers by 2023 to enable visitors to ride bicycles around popular tourist attractions like Cappadocia.

Noise pollution is also on the agenda for 2020, according to the deputy environment minister, who noted that the government has created a "noise pollution map" in 46 provinces and an action plan for 10 provinces, including Istanbul, Kocaeli and Bursa. By 2023, Turkey aims to create a 60,000-square-meter noise barrier to prevent noise pollution, he said, adding that they support local administrations to reach this goal.

On a more interactive note, the ministry has created a website and a mobile application that enables citizens to keep track of air quality across the country's 81 provinces on a 24-hour basis. The ministry also monitors 305 facilities with Continuous Emission Measuring Systems to ensure they do not surpass the limits for cleaner air.

Turkey's long-awaited first domestically developed car was also designed taking into consideration environmental concerns, as it will be fully electric. This will mean that the car will not release any emissions and will not pollute the environment.

National Forestation Day

Upon the call of a young environmental activist who suggested that Turkey should designate a day for tree planting, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan mobilized the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Nov. 11 was declared as the National Forestation Day, which saw millions of people plant 11 million trees. The event will be repeated on the same day every year with the participation of millions of people. The issue of trees was exploited by some groups during the 2013 Gezi Park riots when a peaceful protest against the proposal of the construction of a replica of Ottoman barracks turned violent. Later on during the protests, some protesters used the slogan "The issue is not just about trees, don't you get it?" to oppose the government. During the forestation day ceremony, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized those who supported the riots but not the national campaign.

"Some people tried to wreak havoc on our cities under the pretext of trees. They set streets on fire for weeks. Here we are, planting saplings, where are those trouble makers? Where are those who criticized us for our environment policies? None of them are here. They wanted to burn Turkey like firewood, not plant trees," Erdoğan said.

Over 4.5 billion saplings were planted over the course of 17 years in Turkey, increasing the forested area from 20.8 million hectares to 22.6 million, including 14 million saplings of walnut, almond, olive, chestnut and laurel trees. Turkey also aims to reach the target of 5,000 forests for 5,000 villages.

Maritime and coastal management

Turkey has been trying to preserve its 8,333-kilometer-long coastline which runs along four seas and has successfully increased the number of its beaches that hold the blue flag tag, which is an international eco-label certificate awarded to beaches.

The government has been preparing the Emergency Response Plan Against the Contamination of Seas by Petroleum and Other Harmful Substances and has approved 358 plans in this regard, the deputy minister said. He noted that the zero-waste initiative pioneered by first lady Emine Erdoğan and an increase in fines and monitoring have boosted the effectivity of regulations and helped keep Turkey's beaches and waters clean.

The ministry had to adopt a stricter and more effective approach to maritime and coastal management in 2016 after a vessel named Lady Tuna hit the rocks and spilled 50 tons of fuel near western İzmir province.

Protection of natural and cultural heritage

With the goal of preserving the ecosystem and protecting cultural heritage, the government has increased the number of Exclusive Environmental Protection Sites to 18 and has taken exclusive action to preserve sites like Lake Salda, which resembles the Maldives and became a popular tourist attraction after photos emerged on social media.

To protect endangered species like the flamingoes in Lake Tuz and the sea turtles in Patara, the ministry is enforcing species protection programs.

Turkey is also striving to increase the number of sites protected under UNESCO's World Heritage List with the inclusion of Kızılırmak Delta, the largest wetland in the Black Sea region, Lake Tuz and Lake Salda.

Turkey affected by climate change

Turkey is located in the Mediterranean Basin, one of the areas most affected by climate change which has started to have serious implications in terms of natural disasters. Nineteen people lost their lives in climate-linked natural disasters such as tornadoes and floods in 2019, the deputy minister said, adding that such disasters also cause significant material damage costing billions of liras.

Birpınar acknowledged that serious action needs to be taken against climate change, noting that the ministry has launched a nationwide campaign to deal with it.

"We want to maximize climate change efforts and so we have launched a campaign at all levels, including municipalities, in this regard," Birpınar said, noting that cities like Istanbul, Antalya, Bursa, İzmir, Kocaeli and Kahramanmaraş have created climate change action plans.

Collective action required

The deputy minister highlighted that environmental problems are no longer limited to an individual or groups, but affect masses over large areas.

"The European Union may require visas for our citizens but it can't do the same for pollution, and vice versa," Birpınar said, adding that collective action is crucial in solving the problem.

He noted that Turkey has participated in many initiatives in this regard, including the U.N. Environment Assembly meeting in March, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) World Economy Forum in May, the G20 Leaders' Summit in Osaka in June, the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York in September, and other meetings in Italy and Spain in December.

Public Gardens

To provide a breath of fresh air and increase greenery across the cities, the government initiated the public gardens project, which envisions the creation of at least one such park in all cities across the country.

"With public gardens, we aim to increase the per capita green space to 15 square meters," Birpınar said, adding that they have so far opened 13 parks equaling up to 4,841 square meters, the area of 500 football fields and will create 134 other public gardens in 60 provinces.

The "city parks" concept designed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) proposes turning old public spaces into parks, a move which will further advance the party's environmental agenda in the next year

Smart cities

The government aims to use artificial intelligence in urban planning to facilitate life in cities while enhancing productivity and protecting the environment.

Turkey's National Smart Cities Strategy and Action Plan, which includes 40 actions, has become the fourth after the U.S., the Netherlands and Australia.

For instance, Kayseri Metropolitan Municipality created the Sustainable Energy Action Plan, which aims to decrease carbon emissions by 40% until 2030 to fight climate change by promoting the use of sustainable energy resources.

Full support for renewable energy

Aware of Turkey's potential, the government aims to maximize the use of renewable resources for energy to secure supply and offer a greener alternative to protect the environment, according to the deputy minister.

According to the Renewables 2019 report by the International Energy Agency, Turkey's share in global electricity production using wind and solar energy is expected to jump from 7% to 12%.

Meanwhile, data by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources shows that Turkey boosted its installed renewable energy capacity by 245% in the past 16 years and has become the sixth country in Europe in installed wind and solar power.

In 2020, Turkey will give electricity consumers to choose renewable resources in a new tariff scheme that will be launched soon.

Fines increased in 2019

The administrative fines for individuals and companies violating environmental laws have also increased by 23.73% in 2019. Accordingly, owners of vehicles not going through emission tests had to pay TL 1,546, while vehicles omitting emissions above the limits had to pay TL 3,093. Hefty fines were imposed on facilities failing to abide by pollution restrictions specified in the law.

Likewise, the Ministry of Transport, Maritime Affairs and Communication also raised the fines for pollution caused by vessels by 41% and implemented stricter regulations after a ship hit rocks and spilled 50 tons of fuel in western Turkey.

Also at sea, illegal fishermen were slapped with over TL 14.1 million in fines, according to the Coast Guard Command.

In 2020 Turkey will take a step closer to an environmentally conscious future where people will not only have greener options but will be encouraged to make greener decisions in all aspects of life.

For Birpınar, 2020 is a step to "ensure the 2023 Strong Turkey target is reached with a healthy and sustainable environment."

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