How Iran’s elections are going green
Candidates and voters are talking about the environment like never before, dispelling notions that no-one other than a few enlightened members of the upper classes care about the issue
Alongside his campaign ads, a candidate in Buin Zahra, Qazvin province, has offered voters seeds of native floral species to encourage stewardship and conservation. In the south-western city of Ahwaz, the cutting of two trees to make room for election banners provoked a backlash from activists and residents that prompted the campaign office to condemn those who had slashed the trees.
With the country in the home stretch for the election of Irans tenth post-Revolutionary parliament on Friday 26 February, the campaign is confounding any scepticism that concern for the environment is the preserve of an enlightened elite. As polling day draws close, public expectation is mounting over candidates plans to address issues like dwindling water supplies and deteriorating air quality, so marking a break from previous parliamentary elections.
Evidence of degradation is widespread. In north-west Iran, Lake Urmia, the Middle Easts largest saltwater lake, has nearly disappeared during the last decade. The forests of the Zagros Mountains in the west are thinning out as the land degrades with the loss of fertile top soil.
Episodes of thick haze are found around the country, especially Khuzestan province where schools and government offices are frequently closed. Many rural regions face acute water shortages, forcing citizens to migrate to cities.
Appearing uninformed or unprepared to comment may be a major faux pas for candidates, as electors expect them to propose solutions rather than just portray a green image to keep up with the vibe. Hundreds of candidates around the country have signed a 15-clause environmental pact. Pictures of candidates signing up are circulated through social media by environmental groups and individuals.
The pact commits parliamentary deputies to act as legislative stewards of environmental integrity based on principles of social justice as well as the constitutions article 50, which makes environmental protection a public duty, and article 90, which gives citizens the right to call public bodies to account if they fall short of their responsibilities. The pact calls for a national environmental plan to stop to short-sighted management, damaging projects and profiteering, while encouraging liaison with NGOs and experts.
The pact has broadened out across the country from an original declaration in western Iran of a coalition of candidates formed with a core mission of protecting the environment, the first of its kind since the 1979 Revolution. Supporters of Gracious Zagros and Oppressed Karoun is headed by Alireza Mahjoob, the spokesman of Irans Workers House, the official trade union body.
Mohammad Reza Aref, former vice president and head of the moderate and reformist coalition in Tehran, has described environmental problems as a national threat, saying the environment will be a top priority for the coming parliamentary term.
This growing awareness has come at a high cost. In this, Iran is no exception. The US, for example, underwent many environmental tragedies throughout the last century, including the great Mississippi flood of 1927, the Great Plains dust storms dubbed the Dust Bowl in the dirty thirties, the Cuyahoga river fire of 1969, and the partial eradication of birds and reduction of biodiversity by noxious pesticides in the mid 20th century.
Such catastrophes played an important role in the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and passing of legislation like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
Last years nuclear agreement with world powers has brought Iran into a world of international commitments. According to the Paris climate agreement, the easing of sanctions means Iran should aim for a 4% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, or a higher 12% cut in return for $35bn in international support.
Meeting either target poses a formidable task for a country relying heavily on exporting oil to revive its economy, even if low prices and the danger of stoking competition with other producers will prevent any dramatic increase from a level of exports depressed by US and European Union sanctions introduced in 2012.
The challenge of reforming all aspects of government policies – balancing reform environmental and energy requirements, realigning the countrys growth trajectory – is major. The outcome of the pledges and action plans remains to be seen.
But the current election can leave two important legacies. It can bolster the status of the environment ministry, which has historically been held in lower standing than the energy (water and power) and oil ministries. And it can encourage grassroots non-governmental organisations and citizens to step up their efforts.
Kaveh Madani, senior lecturer in environmental management at the Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, has been in Iran for the election period. Ali Mirchi is a research assistant professor at Department of Civil Engineering and Center for Environmental Resource Management, the University of Texas at El Paso. The Tehran Bureau is an independent media organisation, hosted by the Guardian. Contact us @tehranbureau