Conversation with

    An economist with a BA and MA from Boğaziçi University and a PhD from Manchester University, Fikret Adaman is currently professor of Economics at Boğaziçi University. His fields of interest include ecological politics, public finance, history of economic thought, and Turkey’s political economy. His work has appeared in, among others, Antipode, The Cambridge Journal of Economics, Conservation Letters, Development and Change, Ecological Economics, Energy Policy, Environmental Politics, The New Left Review and Voluntas.
    Adaman’s latest publication was the co-edited Neoliberal Turkey and its Discontents. He has served as an expert to the European Commission on Turkey’s social policies since 2009 and was appointed in 2016 to lead Turkey’s branch of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.


    After receiving a BA from Boğaziçi University and an MA from McGill University, Hande Paker went on to complete her PhD, also at McGill, and currently teaches in the Faculty of Economics, Administrative and Social Sciences at Bahçeşehir University. Her research interests include political sociology, political ecology, civil society, the state, citizenship, and politics of the environment. She has carried out research on modes of civil society-state relations, politics of the environment at the local-global nexus, and grounded cosmopolitan citizenship, with a particular focus on environmental struggles and women’s rights. Her articles have appeared in Environmental Politics, Theory and Society and Middle Eastern Studies. Her current research project analyzes how environmental civil society actors engage the issue of climate change and climate justice to mobilize the public by focusing on local and transnational environmental spaces of action.


I’d like to start with a brief appraisal of what we’ve achieved over the past few decades in matters concerning the environment and sustainability. Let me summarize the milestones on my mind first; you’ll probably have things you’d like to add. Back in the 1970s, the environment wasn’t a high priority in our business life. In Turkey, at least, we were more focused on how to overcome bottlenecks in raw materials, technology and so on in order to increase production. But those were the years, I believe, when academic interest in environmental matters rose. Publication of The Limits to Growth Club of Rome report in 1972 piqued the interest of business, but our main concern was the projected depletion of resources and how we might continue production.[1] Later in the 1970s the thinning of the ozone layer came to the fore, and people began to talk about associated risks; the issue was picked up by the media and more questions were raised. In recent years, the concept of sustainability has overtaken the earlier focus on the environment. It’s now one of our top priorities. Viewed in this light, I detect a very dramatic, very noticeable change in the world of business and our mindsets. Would the two of you agree?

1. Meadows, Donella H., Meadows, Dennis L., Randers, Jorgen and Behrens III, Williams W., Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind (Earth Island: 1972)

Absolutely. If we were to give the turning point a name, it might be “entropy,” as defined by Georgescu-Roegen. It’s an important concept that shook the academic world in the 1970s. What it says is, “There’s a balance; once it’s disturbed, it’s not easy to recover, so let’s be careful.” As you say, there was a lot of focus in the 1970s on pollution, finite resources, and population growth; it helps to remember all that. Then came Cousteau’s marine research and his highly popular and memorable films. My generation, give or take five years, was hugely influenced by his films and their clear message that the seas were getting polluted, marine life was threatened, and we therefore had to tread carefully. Then, in the 1990s, the “development equals the rate of growth” paradigm came under scrutiny by the UN and others. Critics pointed out that health was important, that education was important, that the status of women was important, that the environment was important. Today the UN’s development paradigm includes women, the environment, and education; since when? Since the early 1990s.

So, since the 1970s as you describe them, all kinds of factors arising from diverse segments of society, not just the academic world, have contributed to the formation of a new paradigm. Of course, little by little, the business world realized it had to take notice. Especially in the West.


It might make sense to add something here. The concept of sustainability actually crystallized in the 1980s, well before the 1990s. A UN commission formed in 1987 published a seminal report: Our Common Future[2]. It was one of the building blocks of this development you refer to. It stressed that development was not merely growth, that it had other dimensions also worthy of consideration. It went on to highlight the importance of sustainability, that is, protecting our capacity to meet the needs of the future, of future generations, while meeting our needs today. That’s what raised the profile of sustainability and made it the most discussed topic at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Eventually the debate focused on deepening our understanding of sustainability and how to achieve it. Here, it’s perhaps important to identify two lines of thought at the time: One claimed that sustainability was possible through technological progress, which meant that we could achieve sustainability without altering our production and consumption habits very much. The idea was that we could both protect the environment and continue growing the economy. The other line of thought, in contrast, asserted that technological progress wasn’t going to be enough, that we had to rethink all our habits. This debate about sustainability continues. The focus may have moved to climate change, but the fundamental debate remains the same.

2. Our Common Future,

Yes. This fundamental debate is vital, and I would fully expect it to take up most of our conversation. I have several questions on this subject, but we’ll get to them in due course. In appraising where we are today, how should we evaluate the Paris Agreement? To begin with, 2015 was a year with several positive developments in the area of sustainability, among them the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and, of course, the Paris Agreement, which we all interpreted as a significant step forward. It was an unprecedented achievement that people came together to solve a long-term problem and left their ideological differences aside to reach agreement on very important principles. You could compare it to some examples from the past, but it was nothing like the treaties signed at the end of the Second World War, for instance. It was also very different from the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, which focused on how to repair the devastation caused by war, and ultimately led to the formation of the United Nations. For the first time ever, the discussion centered on a potential threat, and participants reached an important agreement on taking action to prevent it. The agreement was then approved in record time by 193 countries, if I remember correctly.


Yes. Correct.


And it came into force. All this offered hope. It went much further than the Kyoto Protocol. At least, that was the general impression. Needless to say, several questions arise at this point. Are the measures in the agreement sufficient? Do they really represent an effective program capable of tackling the threats we face in terms of sustainability and climate change? Is it enough to restrict the rise in temperature by the end of the century to less than 2° C? Can we reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by the middle of the century? Are these goals realistic? Are they even attainable? If they are, will we be able to achieve them? Does the Paris Agreement contain the sanctions needed to make them realistic? What happens if countries fail to reach their goals; is there a cost? And is there an effective enforcement system? Moreover, are we being too optimistic, especially in view of the events of 2016? How much of a backslide do you think the election in America of a president intent on withdrawing from the Paris Agreement is going to cause? What are your thoughts on these matters?


The first thing to consider is this: Let’s say we’ve just shaken hands, and I’m country X. What if I fail to keep my promise?


What happens?




Nothing happens at all.

I thought it was a great achievement that the Paris Agreement got to the approval stage in record time. After the “still birth” – so to speak – that was Kyoto, it was wonderful that an accord was reached so quickly and with such a high level of participation, and then signed by so many countries. But it has no enforcement mechanism; the whole process is voluntary. So, country X says, “I’ll do this,” and country Y makes another commitment. Some countries send their presidents or prime ministers, so the level of representation is significant. A few days later someone says – this is a hypothetical example, of course – “I’m going to open 90 fossil fuel power plants in my country.” With that statement you’ve discarded your commitment; even if you were to do your utmost in every other area, you’re obviously not going to be able to keep your promise if you open that many fossil fuel power plants. And no one can stand up and say, “But that’s not what we agreed on!” There’s no legal basis for challenging that decision. There was no discussion of what others might do if one country reneges on its promise. It’s another illustration of how difficult it is to act together, especially when powerful countries withdraw their support – which is what America did when Trump said, “I’m getting out of this!” The likelihood of success diminishes. But I still haven’t been able to come to the main question: Was the goal of the agreement sufficient or not? Was it good, or not?

Without a doubt, setting a minimal standard, at least, was an achievement, and the handshake felt good. As you know, a summit soon followed in Morocco where more targets were set out. But the fact that all country commitments were voluntary, that no mechanisms were discussed, let alone designed, to deal with non-compliance was a major flaw. Some countries are now much more cautious. China, for example, has recently taken a new stance. Other countries are still dragging their feet. I wonder what Professor Paker will say.