Middle East

Can Iran boost production while cutting greenhouse gases?

Steel factory in Yazd, Iran (file photo) Image copyright AFP
Image caption Iran aims to boost production following the lifting of sanctions

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif will be performing a delicate balancing act in New York on Friday.

He will sign ambitious commitments to cut carbon emissions at the UN climate meeting while at the same time pressing for sanctions relief to boost Iran's carbon-heavy industrial sector.

Many Iranians will be watching with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, there are hopes the emissions cuts Iran plans to make as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement will help it stave off chronic air pollution, water shortages and desertification thought to be partly due to global warming.

But on the other, there is huge anticipation for the economy to improve following last year's nuclear deal and lifting of international sanctions.

For that to happen Mr Zarif needs to find a way to get money flowing to one of the most heavily polluting sectors of the economy - the fossil fuel industry that accounts for up to 85% of Iran's export revenue.


Although many trade delegations have visited Iran since the nuclear deal, and many deals have been signed, there have been few tangible results because most international banks are still unwilling to deal with Iran for fear of breaching other pre-existing unilateral US sanctions.

In his meetings with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Mr Zarif has been seeking a way to break the deadlock.

If he succeeds, Iran is hoping to up oil production well above the current levels of 1.1m barrels per day.

Image copyright AP
Image caption World powers agreed a plan to tackle greenhouse gases as a summit in Paris in 2015

But environmentalists are asking how this will square with Iran's ambitious plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 12% by 2030.

"The commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12% has not been well thought out," says Nasser Karami, an Iranian physical climatologist from Bergen University in Norway.

"The Iranians may have been influenced by political and PR considerations after they successfully reached the nuclear deal."

Iran's parliament has yet to ratify the Paris Agreement.

That task falls to the next elected parliament which begins its first session in June.

Iranian MPs have little experience of debate on climate issues but Iran's Environmental Protection Agency has been under fire from conservatives as President Hassan Rouhani has endeavoured to strengthen its hand in cracking down on environmentally harmful practices in the private and public sector.

'Dirty air'

Climate change as a global issue still seems far away from the day-to-day concerns of most Iranians, but they are very concerned by environmental issues at home.

Babak, a Facebook user, from Tehran, spoke for many in a recent post.

"We are choking on all this dirty air," he wrote, complaining about the city's notorious pollution. "Why can't Rouhani get all these polluting cars off the road."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Pollution levels are high in Tehran

Phasing out polluting old cars and motorbikes, and improving the petrol quality could take a chunk out of Iran's greenhouse gas emissions.

Investments in clean energy could also help.

Following the nuclear deal, Iran has begun a number of projects to build wind turbines and solar panel farms in partnership with companies from Finland, Holland and Belgium.

However, many doubt this is will be enough to enable Iran to slash emissions so radically.

"Unless Iran pursues a massive switch from gas and oil energy producing units to solar and wind energies, meeting its 12% target is realistically unattainable," said Mehrdad Emad, a European Union economic consultant on Iran.

Temperature warnings

Experts are already warning that if current trends continue, rising temperatures could make large swathes of southern Iran uninhabitable in years to come.

The city of Mahshahr in the south-east has already broken records with 63C (145F) last summer.

Masoumeh Ebtekar, the influential head of Iran's Environmental Protection Agency, has warned Iranians to prepare themselves for the possibility of big changes to their climate in the future.

But although there has been a new interest in domestic environmental issues in Iran in recent years, most Iranians have little understanding of the global picture or know that their country is one of the world's top 10 polluting countries.

And as Mr Zarif 's mission to New York this week underlines, Iran's decision-makers still have a long way to go as they try to balance the challenge of saving both the country's economy and the planet.

Correction 20 May 2016: A reference to income from Iran's fossil fuel industry has been changed to clarify that the figure relates to Iran's export revenue.

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