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Towards A ‘Green’ Mediterranean? Environmental Geopolitics of Turkey, Egypt and Israel

Analyses - 17 February 2022

In his eye-opening work, Amro Ali (2020) introduces us to the Mediterranean Without Borders map, drawn by Paris-based artist Sabine Réthoré in 2011 with a 90-degree rotation to visually distort our sense of differentiating the northern (EU) and southern (non-EU) Mediterranean. Ali’s goal is simple but complicated. He invites us to consider the fact that, within the context of current traditional Mediterranean geopolitics - refugees crossing and drowning, fortress Europe, colonial history, skewed markets, condescending north to south (top to bottom) attitudes, post-colonial stagnation and so forth - a simple rotation of the map is indeed a big political statement, with humanizing tendencies that make transnational ties look more intimate. Furthermore, as geographer Joshua S. Campbell emphasizes, traditional maps create fixed geographical imaginings for people. A simple tweak can break the configurations of mental mapping and open up novel ways of seeing the world. Inspired by this idea of ‘a simple tweak’ in mappings, we have embarked on researching the environmental geopolitics of the southern Mediterranean with the aim of transforming traditional understandings, as well as ways of seeing the region. This should enable an environmentalist approach, with alternate transnational, political, and economic possibilities, to lead to new perceptions of the Mediterranean. 

Today, the Mediterranean region warms 20% faster than the rest of the world. Such drastic change brings about floods, heatwaves, droughts, desertification and food shortages, leading to massive migration and impacting the lives of 1/3 of the regional population. The first published scientific report on the impact of climate and environmental change in the region, prepared by 85 scientists from 20 different countries, revealed that temperatures are projected to increase well above the point of no return, and sea-level rise may exceed 1M by 2100. Within 20 years, fresh water availability will decrease by 15% and some 250 million people will be considered water poor. Human health and economic prosperity will be adversely affected. Environmental conflicts also exacerbate other conflicts - ethno-territorial, border, identity, socio-economic etc. Wars have even further potential to alter the biosphere. It has also been reported that due to water scarcity, rising urbanization, and the high prevalence of rain-fed agriculture, the southern and eastern Mediterranean are much more vulnerable to climate change than the EU Mediterranean countries.

Despite such alarming levels of environmental degradation, as one environmentalist in Cyprus observes, the Mediterranean's rising temperature, salinity, number of invasive species entering the sea through the Suez Canal, pollution due to waste disposal, as well as territorial water disputes do not, unfortunately, lead neighboring countries to cooperate closely with each other. Egypt, for example, is ranked 109 out of 181 countries in the 2021 ND-GAIN Index, which scores countries’ vulnerability to climate change as well as their policies to combat it. Both the Egyptian government and the private sector have hence been involved in building the planned renewable energy capacity. The New and Renewable Energy Authority, under the Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy, is responsible for carrying out the government’s renewable energy projects. In order to achieve renewable energy targets, a number of policies were introduced, including build-own-operate, feed-in-tariffs. In 2017, the new Investment Law no.72/2017 was passed to establish a legal framework for renewable projects, and offer further incentives and guarantees to attract private and foreign investments in Egyptian renewable energy projects. In 2020, the Ministry of Finance further introduced the first sovereign green bonds and sold $750 million green bonds in a five-year period. Given its wealth of renewable resources, Egypt has the largest amount of installed renewable energy among the MENA countries. Despite Egypt’s commitments on renewable energy development and climate change, however, the country’s path towards decarbonization continues to be shaped by its political economy conditions and geopolitical aspirations to become a regional energy hub. 

Our interviews with Egyptian diplomats reveal that, faced with the burgeoning demand of an increasing population, Egyptian policy makers see renewable energy as a way to improve energy security, while retaining foreign exchange earnings from gas exports to keep the rentier structure of the economy.

Egyptian policy makers see renewable energy as a way to improve energy security, while retaining foreign exchange earnings from gas exports to keep the rentier structure of the economy. 

The discovery of the Zohr gas field in 2015, located 150 kilometers off the Egyptian coast in the Southern Mediterranean Sea, with 850 billion cubic meters of gas, brought fundamental changes in the country’s energy policy as well as its regional diplomacy. In December 2017, the Zohr gas field commenced production, turning Egypt into a net exporter of natural gas with a processing capacity exceeding 2.7 billion cubic feet per day in 2018. Hydrocarbon production is the country's largest industrial field, accounting for 24% of total GDP in 2019-2020. Egypt is currently Africa's leading non-OPEC oil producer, as well as the continent's third-largest natural gas producer, after Algeria and Nigeria. 

Like other coastal states in the Southern Mediterranean, Israel is implicated in the ‘Green’ Mediterranean challenge, without neglecting to develop relations with its neighbors in order to increase its gas exports in the wake of natural gas extraction. Israel had historically been an energy-dependent country until the discovery of two major offshore gas fields in Tamar and Leviathan in 2009 and 2010, and two minor fields, Karish and Tanin, in 2012 and 2013. After having attained self-sufficiency, the government and natural gas developers secured a deal to export 40% of Israel’s natural gas to foreign markets. In February 2021, the European Commission further published a Renewed Partnership with Southern Neighborhood - A New Agenda for the Mediterranean to support regional states in developing "policies to address fugitive methane emissions from fossil fuel production, transport and use, in line with the framework set in the EU methane strategy." By allocating €7 billion from the EU budget in a partnership with the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the Commission seeks to encourage public and private entities to invest in green projects in the Southern Mediterranean countries, including Israel, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. 

The EU’s commitment to decarbonization by 2050 has further required Israel to reassess its offshore hydrocarbon activities. The Israeli government has already implemented a number of initiatives to address climate change and marine protection issues. While renewable energy - largely solar power - constituted 5.8% of Israel’s energy mix in 2020, Israel recently targeted to produce 30% of its electricity from renewable sources, focusing particularly on increasing solar energy by 2030, and achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050. It has also committed to phasing out coal by 2025. A number of financial incentives, such as feed-in tariffs, the removal of taxes from solar and wind energy generation and a net-meeting system were introduced to further develop the renewable energy sector. Connecting Israel’s energy grid with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Europe through Greece and Cyprus has also been proposed in the "roadmap for a low carbon energy economy by 2050" by the Energy Ministry. Most recently, in December 2021, Israel’s Energy Minister, Karin Elharrar, announced that the country will halt the search for offshore natural gas fields until the end of 2022 at least, and accelerate the development of renewable energy resources. 

Unlike solar energy, wind power projects have raised strong objections in Israel, albeit for different reasons. Apart from the concerns of environmental groups that wind turbines are harmful for rare birds nesting in the Golan, the Israeli Ministry of Defense also opposed the wind turbines because of their disruptive impacts on critical security systems. In order to overcome this problem, the Israeli ministries of energy, defense, finance, and the electricity authority seek to develop new technologies for the construction of new wind power plants, which would not interfere with military and air force operations. Arab Druze farmers and the Syrian communities in the Golan have also been vocal in their opposition to wind turbines. According to a report written by Al-Marsad-Arab Human Rights Center in Golan Heights, wind power project in the Golan "as an Israeli tool of occupation, defies two main principles of international law: 1) the ban on pillage and the permanent destruction, manipulation and/or alteration of occupied land, and 2) the right to self-determination of one’s land.

In compliance with regional and global trends in green energy transitions, the guiding principles of Turkey’s shift to renewable energy have mainly been driven by business interests, energy security and regime consolidation, without efficiently responding to the strong growth in energy demand, and an associated increase in import dependency. Given Turkey’s heavy reliance on imported fossil fuels, and burgeoning consumption needs, it is hence not a surprise that Turkey is trying to simultaneously secure and diversify its energy supplies, as well as expand domestic exploration and production.

The guiding principles of Turkey’s shift to renewable energy have mainly been driven by business interests.

While it has increased its renewable energy potential in solar and wind energy at an impressive rate, and put plans of constructing nuclear plants to one side, Turkey has also initiated the construction of the TurkStream pipeline to transit Russian natural gas to southern Europe through its own soil. Furthermore, it has invested in the resurgence of coal-fired electricity generation, as part of an energy strategy aimed at meeting the country's growing electricity demand. 

Like Egypt and Israel, Turkey’s recent energy policies and its geopolitical calculations in the Southern Mediterranean put a strong emphasis on hydrocarbon exploration and have led Ankara to intensify drilling activities in the region. The expanding areas for drilling have, however, aggravated long-standing disputes in the Southern Mediterranean, such as the Cyprus problem or the Aegean Sea continental shelf, by bringing other regional and global actors into the scene, such as Israel and Egypt, the European Union, and NATO. Faced with long-standing intractable geopolitical conflicts in the Southern Mediterranean, Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO, which holds most exploration and production licenses) has turned to the Black Sea and initiated an offshore investment campaign, along with increased operations onshore, including shale oil and gas.

While Turkey provides a model of renewable energy development, it also continues business as usual policies, just like other actors involved in the ‘Green Energy’ challenge. 

Faced with long-standing intractable geopolitical conflicts in the Southern Mediterranean, Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO, which holds most exploration and production licenses) has turned to the Black Sea and initiated an offshore investment campaign, along with increased operations onshore, including shale oil and gas. Sakarya gas field, claimed to be the largest discovery in the Black Sea and operated by Turkish Petroleum, which plans to commence production in 2023, will help diminish Turkey’s natural gas import dependence.

Hence, while Turkey provides a model of renewable energy development, it also continues business as usual policies, just like other actors involved in the ‘Green Energy’ challenge. 

However, a wide range of recent studies - including Tollefson (2013), Howarth et al. (2012), and Alvarez et al. (2012) - indicate that natural gas - which consists mostly of methane, released during the extraction, transport and processing of natural gas - and its export form, liquefied natural gas (LNG), can be considerably harmful to the climate. It is therefore recognized with rising alarm that the recent explanatory offshore drillings in the Southeastern Mediterranean and beyond negatively impact the environment, both during the exploration and production phases, through pollution and biodiversity loss. As Steve Brenner puts it, "as a prototype semi-enclosed sea, the Mediterranean is sensitive and vulnerable to pollution events in general, and specifically to potential oil spills from ships, offloading terminals, pipelines, or wells." Turkish environmentalists, more so than their counterparts in neighboring countries, hope to rely on the EU for the implementation of Green Deal rules to this end, but also to change mindsets about the exploitation of the environment for political ends. Aydintasbas and Dennison have also recently argued that the EU Green Deal can save Turkish-EU relations. Business organizations such as the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TUSIAD) and the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEIK), as well as civil society groups, have been trying to steer the Turkish government towards a more globalist and environmentally friendly economic model. These organizations argue that adjustment to the green economy would help Turkish industries maintain a competitive advantage in the European marketplace in the long term, since Turkey can be the key supplier to Europe in a green economic revolution. In return, by reopening negotiations with Ankara on the European Green Deal, the EU would encourage Turkey’s pro-European elements, and strengthen the country’s relationship with the EU, thereby gaining the opportunity to act as a bridge between different countries in the region. 

However, as our environmentalist interviewees across the Southern Mediterranean have underlined, the local policy-maker, business and EU support coalition on the green energy transition risks greenwashing the existing and serious environmental problems of the region. This may be why the prominent French thinker Bruno Latour invites environmentalists to anchor themselves more firmly in political ecology, as he believes that ordinary people, including policy makers, cannot be mobilized without ideological engagement. Latour’s most recent book, written with Danish scholar Nikolaj Schultz, urges ecologists to regain their ability to fight for power just like the right wing, liberal and/or populist politicians, define ecological concepts and do "the important ideological work of finding exactly the terms that arouse the effects of adhesion". Otherwise, the entire environmentalist project in the Mediterranean and beyond is bound to become another political-economy and ‘corporate social responsibility’ approach, "addressing the dimension of relations between international organizations, transnational corporations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the context of their lobbying activities for profit".

This publication was produced as part of the project "Environmental Geopolitics in the Southern Mediterranean: The Potential for Cooperation between Turkey, Egypt and Israel" which is a project of CATS Network. The Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS) at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) in Berlin is funded by Stiftung Mercator and the Federal Foreign Office. CATS is the curator of CATS Network, an international network of think tanks and research institutions working on Turkey.


Copyright: JACK GUEZ / AFP


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