A motorboat is seen sailing past Istanbuls historic Haydarpasa Train Station. (Credit: Azra Ceylan)

Officials in Istanbul say they want to slash the city’s carbon emissions in line with international agreements, but are being held up by a lack of state legislation and action.

Last October, Turkey’s parliament ratified the Paris Climate Agreement on reducing emissions, which the government signed in 2016. The Paris Agreement’s primary goal is to limit global warming to two degrees higher than pre-industrial levels, which calls for a series of restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. 

According to climate expert Ümit Şahin, the greatest portion of carbon emissions in Turkish cities are byproducts of the energy industry – but municipalities don’t have the authority to pass laws regulating the use of different sources. 

A 2015 study showed that electricity consumption made up 37 per cent of Istanbul’s carbon footprint, followed by transportation with 28 per cent of emissions and natural gas at 25 per cent. 

“Municipalities’ only contribution to energy use reduction could be to create incentives for the installation of solar panels on residential and commercial buildings through regulations involved in development plans,” Şahin said. 

Some local administrations like the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality have made efforts to generate energy from urban waste, which isn’t an entirely clean method of energy production either, Şahin noted.

In Kadıköy district, a transport hub located alongside the Bosphorus, solar panels will soon be mandatory for powering communal space in waterfront buildings. 

The largest portion of emissions in Kadıköy district are released from buildings, residential and commercial, said Şule Sümer, the local director of environmental management and climate.

Kadıköy district is also home to a metro line that runs across the Anatolian shoreline and connects to the European side via underwater train. (Credit: Azra Ceylan)

Sümer told Inside Turkey that the district municipal council has now voted to make the waterside solar panels mandatory, pending approval from the metropolitan municipality, and was also working to create “positive energy fields” – areas where more energy was generated from renewable sources than consumed. 

A lack of national legislation was a problem, Sümer stressed, explaining that Turkey only currently obliges new buildings to meet Class C energy requirements, which doesn’t require renewables, or a high level of energy conservation.

“If Class B documents were required instead of Class C, everyone would need to perform more extensive heat isolation and many structures could become zero net energy buildings,” Sümer said, referring to a type of structure where the amount of energy consumed equals the amount generated. 

Kadıköy had the advantage of being a district undergoing significant urban transformation, Sümer said. The district’s policy, as far as it can make it so, is that new buildings should be constructed in energy efficient ways.

Electrical trams run regularly in Kadıköy district virgül making a loop around the districts central bazaar. (Credit: Azra Ceylan)

“Another goal is to make sure any buildings that won’t be transformed are properly isolated and energy efficient. How we will do that is still a question mark for us. There needs to be a financial incentive system in place to encourage people to isolate their buildings,” Sümer said. 

Energy consumption by buildings makes up almost 65 per cent of carbon emissions in Kadikoy, according to a 2016 report by the municipality, while transportation is responsible for nearly 34 per cent of the remainder. 

Unlike the energy industry, the transportation sector is an area where local administrations can make a difference, Şahin explained. 

A significant portion of the transportation industry’s carbon emissions come from heavy vehicles conducting freight shipments, followed by passenger travel and private cars. 

“Municipalities could help reduce emissions from freight shipments if they install rail systems in the city. Of course, they also have to transform their entire bus fleet into electric vehicles,” Şahin said.

Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality runs the vast majority of the city’s transportation network, and is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. 

In 2019, Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu signed the Deadline 2020 protocol, a commitment to reducing emissions from the leaders of some of the world’s largest cities. This document acknowledges that city authorities will not be able to reach targets by themselves.

“Collaboration with external partners and wider stakeholders will be crucial to deliver the further transitions necessary,” the protocol states.

Near the far end of a metro line that begins in Kadıköy is Istanbul’s Tuzla district, home to a designated industrial zone where air quality control legislation has made little impact. 

Once again, the district municipality finds itself lacking the power to regulate energy use and emissions locally. Here, though, the main problem is factory emissions – particularly from leather processing plants – rather than transport. 

“The Organised Industrial District [the specially designated zone] doesn’t even answer to the municipality,” said Gürkan Karahan, a chemical technician in its environmental department. “We answer to the nvironment and urbanisation ministry but they have no real enforcement [initiative] here.”

Veysel Çelik, a press officer for Tuzla municipality, confirmed that air quality didn’t fall under the district’s powers. 

Karahan believes the ministry could enforce better air quality if it wanted. He told Inside Turkey that the government kept a detailed database of information on each of the operating companies in the industrial zone, and that could easily keep track of the plants’ operations. 

Istanbuls transportation network spans over two continents and is made up of a variety of motorized vehicles including ferries. (Credit: Azra Ceylan)

Factories are in theory subject to national regulations on air pollution, Karahan said. However, emissions often fall below the minimum threshold set by the ministry, which means they are not subject to regular inspections. 

If they met the threshold, said Karahan, the ministry “would take precautions about the facilities’ air ventilation systems like filters and would conduct regular measurements”.

Plants that fall below the regulation’s emissions brackets are only inspected once, when they apply for a license, and never routinely visited again, Karahan said. He added that even in factories that do fall under the ministry’s jurisdiction, “it’s clear that these inspections aren’t conducted regularly”. 

Inside Turkey asked the Istanbul environment and urbanisation ministry for comment, but they did not respond. 

Another loophole in the legislation leaves out industrial facilities that operate without combustion processes, Karahan said. Metal coating, for instance, releases chemicals like acid vapour, but isn’t regulated under the licensing procedures because the emissions aren’t greenhouse gases. 

“This is a serious gap in the legislation,” Karahan said. 

One way where the Tuzla municipality could help combat air pollution and unregulated emissions is through the use of their city gas infrastructure, Karahan said. Municipalities’ natural gas providers often inspect customers’ premises while installing meters. 

“They inspect the release of the gas after it’s burned and they inspect the chimney systems, but they don’t do it regularly,” Karahan said. “On top of that, they have the database of each customer’s monthly use.”

Noting that municipal gas providers’ records could be a good starting point to enforcing emission reduction incentives, Karahan said that municipalities could provide an effective safeguard in regulating plants that fall outside the ministry regulations.

Much like in Kadıköy district, there are steps Tuzla can take locally. The Deadline 2020 protocol confirms that adapting buildings’ energy infrastructure to renewables would yield the highest reduction in carbon emissions among all measures relating to energy use. 

The protocol also noted that retrofitting residential and commercial buildings, meaning the installment of energy-saving technologies, would be most effective in reducing construction carbon footprints.

Choices about sources of energy, however, remain largely out of the hands of Turkey’s municipalities. The transition to greener technologies, whether for transportation or energy use, or even the reduction of existing “dirty energy sources,” is largely a matter of national legislation. 

The Istanbul governor’s environment, urbanisation and climate crisis department was not immediately available for comment.