The environmental issues motivating action towards renewable energy in Iran
Air pollution and water scarcity are two of the highest priority environmental problems in Iran. These environmental crises have triggered protests throughout the country, putting the government under increasing pressure to tackle these issues.
Air pollution in Iran
According to the World Health Organisation, four of the ten worst cities for air pollution in the world are in Iran. The air quality in Tehran, according to the Air Quality Index, regularly scores above 200, deeming it “heavily polluted” – the consequences of which are evident in the fact that in 2018, the World Bank attributed 12,000 deaths a year in the country to air pollution. Iran’s air pollution has a huge impact on the health and quality of life of the population, and in Tehran, on many days during winter vulnerable members of the population are advised to stay indoors.6
The cause of this staggering air pollution is largely attributed to wind-blown dust, carbon emissions from cars, and the use of fuels such as mazut (an unrefined and highly polluting form of industrial oil) and diesel in factories. While some of these issues are longstanding, sanctions are exacerbating the situation: the use of mazut and diesel in factories is caused by the difficulty in producing and obtaining higher grade fuels , and the inability to export mazut creates excess supply that is deemed necessary to use.7 Additionally, sanctions and the difficulty in obtaining foreign currency make the purchase of foreign automotive technology inaccessible for all but the wealthy8, which leaves many Iranians at the mercy of old, dangerous and inefficient cars such as the “Pride” – which is now owned by Saipa (Saipa Automobile Manufacturing Iranian Company) which has had a decades-long relationship with Citroen. The situation is arguably even worse for the aviation sector, as even the airlines seen as premium in Iran rely on fleets of aircraft built in the 1970s and 1980s.
Despite the resentment of the toxic atmosphere these outdated vehicles create, there is little alternative, and public opinion generally seems firmly opposed to placing restrictions on accessibility to cars and fuel – evidenced by the protests of November 2019, when an increase in fuel prices led to some of the largest and most fervent anti-government protests since the 1979 Revolution.9
Iran’s water shortages
Another emotive and existential threat in Iran is water scarcity. Most of Iran – particularly central and southern Iran – is classed as arid or semi-arid, and for thousands of years, the development of cities and agriculture has been reliant on innovative irrigation systems, such as the system of aquifers and underground irrigation channels known as qanat. The agricultural sector in Iran is said to use 92% of available water10, but mismanagement has led to it being squandered, and evaporation only increases the salinisation of the soil. The poor planning of dams has caused the evaporation of lakes and wetlands – such as Lake Urmia which is nearly dry – and has forced people to migrate, as the land around them dries up into desert. In 2016, the Iranian Minister of Energy stated that in recent years Iran’s available water reserves have decreased from 130 billion to 80.5 billion cubic metres11.
The country experienced severe droughts in the summer of 2021. These were most crippling in Khuzestan, and prompted large-scale protests after the populace of this region – which already suffers dust storms, intense heat, and drought in the summer season – experienced even more severe conditions. Situated on the Iraq border, Khuzestan once enjoyed some of the most bountiful natural resources in Iran with rivers and expansive marshland, however years of exploitation and conflict has resulted in a near-intolerable environmental situation. These recent large-scale protests have demonstrated further to the government the urgency of reforming the inefficient water distribution infrastructure in cities and in the agriculture industry, as well as demonstrating the importance of investing further in water desalinisation projects. Water desalinisation is big business in Iran, and increasingly, projects are being pursued through the efforts of both the private sector and the government, coordinated partly by the government body, the Iran Water Resources Management Company.12
As outlined , there are many challenges facing Iran’s clean energy goals, however, there are also motivating factors which may push the country to action. Water shortages and air pollution may require Iran to move past its reliance on oil resources and seek investment opportunities in its solar potential. However, time will tell whether the country can overcome the financial and historical roadblocks and move towards renewable energy sources in the future.