Turkey should embrace clean energy, for its own national security

By Dustin Hinkley

Given that Russian attempts to increase natural gas and oil exports to Turkey have been accompanied by continued aggressive behavior by the Russian Federation in the form of confrontation in Syria and Libya, it is necessary for Turkey to begin to look elsewhere for its energy independence.

Turkey imports a majority of its natural gas and oil from abroad, with the single largest supplier of both being the Russian Federation. Russia supplies Turkey through a series of pipelines through the Caucasus and underneath the Black Sea, and retains the ability to control the flow of these vital energy resources to Turkey as it pleases. This means that when Russia and Turkey come into confrontation in the geopolitical arena, Russia can exercise immense leverage over Turkey by threatening to cut off its oil and gas exports. This is an unacceptable risk to Turkey’s energy independence and national security and has been tolerated for far too long. Dating back to the time of the Ottomans and Romanovs, Turkey and Russia have been competitors, fighting over Crimea, the Caucasus, and control of the Turkish Straits. For the past 70 years, Russia has been challenged by a Turkey that is a member of the American-led western alliance that stood opposed to it and its foreign policy goals throughout the Cold War and into the modern day. For many states, including Turkey, NATO’s most fundamental mission is that of defense against Russian aggression. Russian domination of Turkish oil and gas imports is an issue that threatens to create division within Turkey, just as it has in other NATO members like Germany, as these countries feel that their economy is dependent on Russia even while their collective security obligations require them to remain critical of Russia and prepared to fight. Therefore, the solution to this dilemma is to reduce dependence on Russian energy exports.

As it moves into the 2020s, Turkey should begin to look elsewhere for its energy needs. To take stock of the potential options, Turkey has the option of exploiting a newly discovered natural gas deposit in the Black Sea, seeking to import more Liquified Natural Gas from the United States, and increasing its reliance on other Middle Eastern countries for its oil and gas needs. Additionally, Turkey has the goal of becoming an oil and gas transit hub for Southern Europe in the near future, a goal that would be made more difficult to achieve by decreasing reliance on Russia.

Turkey also faces another option for generating energy domestically, that would reduce dependence on foreign energy imports from all sources, create jobs in Turkey, and be a major contributor to meeting Turkey’s climate goals set out in the Paris Agreement. That option is, of course, investing in clean energy. As of 2018, Turkey had the goal of generating 30% of its electricity from clean energy sources by 2023, a target that it is on track to miss by a wide margin. With this in mind, a reinvigorated clean energy strategy that is based in both climate policy and Turkey’s national security interests is necessary.

Some countries and regions of the world are not ideal locations for certain types of clean energy production, but Turkey is not one of those places. Large parts of Turkey are well-suited for both solar and wind generation, and Turkey’s long coastline, the longest in the Mediterranean region, is ideal for constructing offshore wind farms. While Turkey does not currently have a strong domestic clean energy sector, it enjoys healthy economic relations with several world leaders in the field. Since the 1990s Turkey has had a free trade agreement with the countries of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), including countries such as Germany and France which have had great success at increasing clean energy production at affordable prices and have well-developed domestic industries that would be able to supply Turkey. In addition to its connection with Europe, the United States has had a rapidly growing clean energy sector over the past decade, especially in solar and wind energy. Turkey and the United States have a $100 billion bilateral trade target, and increasing trade in the clean energy sector could go a long way towards meeting that goal. 

While Turkey would initially be dependent on foreign countries and companies for growing its clean energy sector, the benefits are worth the cost. Over time, Turkey would develop its own domestic clean energy sector at a fast pace due to having access to existing American and European expertise in the sector, it would decrease its carbon emissions even as electricity demand continues to grow, it would drastically decrease its dependence on foreign oil and gas, which would remove several major risks to Turkey’s national security by decreasing Russian leverage on the Turkish economy and foreign policy. 

Helping Turkey develop a clean energy sector is also in the best interests of American and Europe since, as a NATO member, Turkey being less dependent on Russian energy imports means that the risk of conflict between the two will be significantly defused. These new economic and energy ties would highlight that Turkey, Europe, and America still have more in common in terms of their values and priorities than they have areas of disagreement. In recent years, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the US Department of Defense, and other allied leaders and security officials have identified climate change and a dependence on foreign energy as major national security threats. Doubling down on investments in clean energy is the most broadly effective way to combat these threats in conjunction with one another. Furthermore, Turkey’s goal of becoming a credible and influential actor in the international arena can never be met if it does not have control of its own energy supply. This is why, for its peoples wellbeing and its own security, the Turkish government must make clean energy a more central part of its security strategy.