It’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The status of Iran’s response to climate change depends on the one hand on a conservative government that prioritises its economy over the environment, and on the other an international community that treats the country like a pariah with crippling sanctions imposed for its nuclear programme by the United States.
A large group of world leaders descending on Glasgow, Scotland, to attend the UN climate talks COP26, the Iranian foreign minister announced that President Ebrahim Rashi would not be attending. Instead, a group of climate experts will represent the interests and country.
While the Iranian government acknowledges climate change is a threat, it does not appear to be on their priority list.
Speaking volumes is the fact that the head of Iran’s Environmental Protection Organization (IEPO) was one of the last officials to be appointed by the president.
The world’s sixth-highest greenhouse gas emitter, Iran faces many environmental challenges.
Ali Mirchi, assistant professor of water resources engineering at Oklahoma State University, told Al Jazeera that “due to its location and chronic mismanagement issues, Iran must prepare to disproportionately shoulder the adverse effects of climate change on water resources, environmental systems, food security, and rural livelihood, among other things, compared to many other regions of the world.”
Despite these realities, analysts have said the Iranian government will refrain from taking any significant climate action unless the sanctions that have devastated the country’s economy are fully removed.
Failing to act
Iran’s mitigation efforts have been rated “critically insufficient” by the Climate Action Tracker, indicating total non-compliance with the Paris Agreement, an internationally binding treaty aimed at limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial levels, a goal that COP26 also strives to keep within reach.
With more than 90 percent of its energy mix comprised of fossil fuels, Iran’s transition to clean energy is crucial for reducing the amount of emissions released in the atmosphere.
The environment will suffer if the planet heats up to 1.5C. catastrophic and irreversibleThis was confirmed by the chilling report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC), published in August.
To show they are taking the IPCC’s warning seriously, and in preparation for COP26, all developed countries submitted ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which are plans containing targets on how much a nation commits to reducing its emissions by a certain date, usually around 2030, to make a net-zero 2050 scenario feasible.
However, it is more difficult for nations that are classified as developing under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This is because of the additional cost that mitigation would have on their economies.
On top of that, such countries, including Iran, have said the wealthy industrialised nations should help finance their energy transition since they are responsible for about 80 percent of the world’s emissions.
The last time Iran made any mitigation pledges was back in 2015 as part of its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), “but the targets are vague and are subject to international support, including financial support and clean technology transfer,” Manal Shehabi, senior research fellow at Oxford Institute for Energy Studies and director at SHEER Research & Advisory, told Al Jazeera.
INDCs can be voluntary targets. They are usually converted into NDCs when the issuing nation joins the Paris Agreement. Iran has yet to complete this task. Iran is one of a few countries that have not yet ratified the Paris Agreement, so it is not legally obligated to meet global mitigation requirements.
According to its INDCs, Iran plans to cut emissions by 12 percent by 2030 compared with the so-called “Business As Usual” model, a baseline the IPCC defines as the point at which countries would operate if emission cuts were no longer necessary.
Eight percent of Iran’s cuts, however, are conditional upon the termination of US sanctions and the availability of international resources.
Any binding climate pledges right now would result in extra spending and “the government is reluctant to sign international agreements that would mean costs for it,” said Kaveh Madani, research professor at the City College of New York and former deputy head of Iran’s environment department.
Iran is working to reach a highly sensitive agreement with the world powers regarding its nuclear programme. If reached, this could lead to an easing of economic sanctions. Iran is expected to give assurances that its nuclear capability will be used only for energy purposes, and not for the development of weapons.
Nuclear energy has been identified as an important player in the global transition to clean energy by the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2050 net-zero plan.
Ultimately “every country in the world that chooses to use nuclear energy safely and peacefully and that works together with the international community should have access to this fabulous technology”, Sama Bilbao y Leon, director general of the World Nuclear Association, told Al Jazeera.
‘Don’t have the bandwidth’
Several of Iran’s high greenhouse gas emitting neighbours have recently made significant strides in their efforts to tackle climate change.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have emerged as dark horses at COP26. They submitted net zero plans to show, at most on paper, that they are willing reduce their dependence on fossil-fuels. Iran, however has not been affected by global pressures to transition to a more sustainable economy.
Tehran’s messaging on climate action has stayed the same throughout. The Iranian government stated at COP23 2017, Bonn, Germany that it would ratify Paris Agreement only if the nuclear deal with world powers is fully implemented.
Even if Iran did decide to implement the 12 per cent emission cuts, the cost would be too high at around $70bn.
According to the Majlis Research Center of the Iranian parliament, the country is likely to have a $10.2bn fiscal deficit this fiscal year.
Moreover, Iran has been prevented from accessing funds provided by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), an organization that assists countries with their environmental problems, due to American sanctions.
“You cannot expect a country that has dire socioeconomic and political issues to focus on climate change,” Madani said.
The Iranian government believes that the threat of climate change is too serious to ignore at this time, despite being under such economic pressure.
“Even if they (Iran’s leaders) consider it important, they don’t have the will and bandwidth to address it. It is eventually the rich who will suffer. [nations] that need to help pay if they want the world to exist,” said Madani.