With the lifting of US sanctions the main focus of Iran’s new government, analysts say its transition to a green economy hangs in the balance.

An Iranian worker looks on as smog obscures buildings in the capital Tehran [File: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA-EFE]

By Sanam Mahoozi

Published On 9 Nov 2021

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.

With an entourage of world leaders descending upon Glasgow, Scotland, for the crucial UN climate talks COP26, the Iranian foreign ministry announced President Ebrahim Raisi would not be attending the conference, with the interests of the country instead represented by a group of climate experts.

While the Iranian government officially recognises climate change as an existential threat, fighting it does not seem to be high up on its to-do 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.

Failure 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.

If the planet heats up any higher than 1.5C, the damage to the environment will be catastrophic and irreversible, a fact confirmed in the chilling report by 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.

For nations classified as developing by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) though, providing NDCs is more difficult given the extra cost that mitigation would bring to 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 are voluntary targets and are usually converted to NDCs when the issuing country formally joins the Paris Agreement, a task that Iran has yet to complete. Iran is among a few countries left to have signed but not ratified the Paris accord, meaning it is under no legal obligation to commit to global mitigation demands.

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.

Sanctions relief

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 on a highly sensitive deal with world powers over its nuclear programme, which could lead to the easing of sanctions on its economy if reached. In exchange, Tehran is expected to provide assurances that its nuclear capabilities will be used for energy purposes and not for developing 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.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey are emerging as dark horses at COP26 by submitting net-zero plans to show, at least on paper, they are willing to reduce their energy reliance on fossil fuels. Iran, however, has remained nonchalant despite global pressure to transition to a greener economy.

Tehran’s messaging on climate action has stayed the same throughout. At COP23 in 2017 in Bonn, Germany, the country said it would ratify the Paris Agreement only in the contingency of the full implementation of its nuclear deal with world powers and financial support.

Even if Iran decides to implement the 12 percent emission cuts pledged, the cost of it would be too much to bear at about $70bn.

The country is expected to run a $10.2bn budget deficit this fiscal year, according to the Majlis Research Center, the research arm of the Iranian parliament.

Meanwhile, American sanctions have also prevented Iran from accessing the funds allocated to it by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), an organisation responsible for helping countries with their environmental problems.

“You cannot expect a country that has dire socioeconomic and political issues to focus on climate change,” Madani said.

For the Iranian government, the threat of climate change is not one it can deal with at this point under so much economic pressure.

“Even if they (Iran’s leaders) consider it important, they don’t have the will and bandwidth to address it. Eventually, it is the rich [nations] that need to help pay if they want the world to exist,” said Madani.