This post from Bruce Rich originally appeared on The Environmental Forum and is reposted with his written permission. Bruce Rich is the author of Mortgaging the Earth, and Foreclosing the Future.

Nearly all future growth in greenhouse gases will come from the world’s emerging economies, and preventing dangerous global warming depends on their reducing emissions growth. Thus it is troubling that Turkey, the world’s 17th largest economy, plans to as much as quadruple coal-fired electric capacity, building as many as 80 new plants by 2030. It could become the world’s third-largest operator of coal plants, after China and India.

Turkey’s GHG emissions would increase 134 percent over current levels, to 1.1 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent annually, over two percent of estimated global emissions in 2030 if the promises at December’s Paris Climate Conference are carried out. Turkey did commit at Paris to reduce GHG emissions 21 percent by 2030 from a business-as-usual scenario. But world GHG emissions would increase only 8 percent, and Turkey’s would still more than double.

The Turkish government’s rationale for coal is based on economics and concerns for energy independence. To meet expected growth in electricity demand of 5–6 percent a year, power generation would have to rise 250 percent by 2030. Turkey has huge lignite deposits that could be used for new coal plants.

According to a recent Washington Post article, "Coal-burning power plants are the biggest single source of man-made mercury, a neurotoxin that causes damage to the nervous system," in addition to causing major environmental degradation as byproduct accumulates over the years. Photo Credit: Roger W via Flickr 

Currently 48 percent of Turkish power is fueled by natural gas, almost all of which has to be imported from Russia and Iran at a cost of around $8 to $10 billion a year, nearly cancelling out positive annual financial flows of foreign direct investment into Turkey of $10.2 billion. Coal currently accounts for 29 percent of power generation, followed by hydro at 16 percent, and wind at 3 percent. To decrease dependency on Russian gas, the government plans to greatly increase coal, expand investment in renewables, and build three hugely expensive nuclear power plants, constructed respectively by Russia, Japan and France, and China.

This dash to coal is a missed economic opportunity as well as an environmental disaster. An August International Energy Agency study estimates that solar and wind power will be less expensive than coal and natural gas by 2025; a Citigroup study concluded the same with 2030 as the threshold year. Turkey’s climate is optimal for investments in solar and wind: it has a photovoltaic performance factor 50 percent higher than Germany’s, and a wind power potential alone of 275 gigawatts, about four times current total installed generating capacity.

Moreover, international investors are increasingly rejecting financial support for coal. The World Bank, European Investment Bank, and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have all revised their energy- lending policies to virtually exclude financial support for new coal power plants, and to prioritize investments in low-carbon renewable generating. Turkey borrows from all three institutions.

"There are significant long-term economic advantages in the renewables scenario." Photo Credit: Sam Howzit via Flickr

At the request of WWF Turkey, Bloomberg New Energy Finance compared the government’s plans with an alternative Renewables Development Pathway for 2030. In the renewables scenario, no new coal plants beyond those already financed or under construction go online, and the resulting gap in new energy generation is met by more wind, solar, and some hydro.

Wind and solar would account by 2030 for over 37 percent of installed generating capacity, and coal plants for only 12.1 percent. Total overall costs for the two scenarios would be about the same, and both reduce dependency on imported gas. But in the renewables scenario, Turkey’s GHG power-related emissions stabilize, rather than more than double.

There are significant long-term economic advantages in the renewables scenario, not even counting the environmental and public health costs of massive coal development. Most new coal plants would require anthracite hard coal rather than lignite, and Turkey has to import anthracite; this dependency could cost some $4 billion annually if the new plants are built. For wind and solar, once built the fuel is free.

The Bloomberg analysis notes that the renewables approach “would be likely” to attract foreign investment in renewables industries, creating new employment and eventually even an export capacity. It cites a recent Turkish government policy establishing higher feed-in electric tariffs for locally manufactured renewable equipment, resulting already in German investment to make wind turbine towers and rotor blades in Turkey.

One of the most striking arguments against the proposed Turkish coal rush is a comparison with South Africa’s power investment plans to 2030. Like Turkey, South Africa is a fast-growing economy, and has a climate especially favorable to solar and wind power. It has urgent challenges of poverty alleviation, and its power sector is currently addicted to domestically produced coal. But South Africa plans to reduce its power dependence on coal from 84 to 30 percent, and increase wind and solar generation to a third of total capacity.