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Iran: Environmental Issues

United States Energy Information Administration
April 2000

Iran is faced with a litany of environmental problems, many of which the country is only beginning to tackle as the problems reach a crisis point. Although Iran established a Department of Environment in 1971, long-term environmental concerns often have been subjugated to shorter-term industrial production and political goals. Iranian environmental protection efforts in the 1970s focused on conservation, with the establishment of a number of national parks, national monuments, and wildlife refuges throughout the country.

Iran maintained this focus after the Islamic Revolution, enshrining environmental protection in the Constitution. Article 50 of the Constitution reads: "In the Islamic Republic of Iran protection of the environment, in which present and future generations should enjoy a transcendent social life, is regarded as a public duty. Therefore, economic and any other activity, which results in pollution or irremediable destruction of the environment is prohibited." However, 8 years of war with Iraq, international political isolation, and economic sanctions kept environmental goals on the back-burner in Iran, and conservation measures predominated in Iran's environmental policies.

Iran's failure to move beyond conservation policies towards a more sustainable development has manifested itself in a range of problems today. In addition to deforestation and desertification issues across much of Iran's arid territory, overfishing in lakes and rivers has caused a drop in fishing levels; industrial and urban waste water runoff has contaminated a number of rivers and coastal waters and threatened drinking water supplies; wetlands and reservoirs are increasingly being destroyed under the pretext of creating industrial and agricultural lands; and oil and chemical spills in the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea continue to pollute the seas and harm aquatic life. The Caspian Sea region is faced with a number of environmental problems in the international rush to develop the Caspian's oil and gas.

Air Pollution
The biggest environmental problem Iran currently faces is air pollution, especially in the capital city of Tehran. About 1.5 million tons of pollutants are produced in Tehran annually, with carbon monoxide from car exhaust making up a large percentage of these pollutants. Upwards of 500,000 of Tehran's nearly 2 million cars are over 20 years old and lack catalytic converters that filter auto exhaust. This situation is made worse with the widespread use of low-quality, leaded gasoline. Leaky engines and cars spewing black smoke are a familiar sight contributing to the city's hazardous air pollution, as well as its infamous traffic snarls.

Tehran's air pollution is made even worse by the city's geographic position. The city is hemmed in by mountains to the north, causing the increasing volume of pollutants to become trapped, hovering over Tehran when the wind is not strong enough to blow the pollution away. Tehran's high altitude, ranging between 3,300 and 5,000 feet, also makes fuel combustion inefficient, adding to the pollution problem. The combination of these natural and man-made factors is that Tehran is one of the most polluted cities in the world, ranking with Mexico City, Beijing, Cairo, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, Jakarta, and Bangkok.

The city's air pollution recently reached a crisis stage in December when high levels of carbon monoxide and other pollutants engulfed the capital for several weeks. With a cloud of smog hovering over Tehran, Iranian authorities shut down elementary schools and closed off the city center to motorists for several days. Iranian-state radio urged Tehran's residents to stay indoors, and many who did venture outdoors resorted to wearing face masks and breathing through wads of cloth. The polluted air was blamed for causing several deaths, as well as causing problems for people with asthma, heart, and skin conditions.

In response to record levels of air pollution (in Tehran especially, but also in other urban areas), Iranian authorities announced a number of short- and long-term steps. In the short-run, officials announced a plan to limit private cars in Tehran--vehicles with odd and even license plant numbers will only be allowed into Tehran on alternate days. However, a previous similar plan, whereby private cars were restricted entry into the city on weekdays using special passes, proved ineffective in reducing pollution levels. Additionally, Iran declared January 19th to be "National Clean Air Day," urging the country's residents not to use their cars on that day unless absolutely necessary.

According to the Green Party of Iran, the National Clean Air Day went largely unnoticed in Iran. The Green Party of Iran, which was recently founded in response to the country's deteriorating environmental conditions, said that most car owners in Iran ignored the call to switch off their engines for 3 minutes. Officials estimate that cars account for 75%-80% of Tehran's pollution. Although 2000 was the third year that the government asked Iranians on January 19th to show respect for the environment with this simple gesture, the call went largely unheeded.

Recognizing that the answer to the country's air pollution problems requires more than just simple gestures, the government also recently launched a comprehensive action plan to combat pollution. Tehran mayor Morteza Alviri announced in December 1999 that the city would launch a 15-year, $2.2-billion project to fight air pollution. The plan, which includes steps to rehabilitate public transport and phase out old automobiles, is a compromise plan worked out by the World Bank, Japanese experts, and Iranian environmentalists. Details of the plan, which was approved by the Iranian cabinet, have not been released, but officials have stated that air pollution in Tehran will decrease by 16% with the plan's implementation. In the meantime, however, Iranians will continue to resort to face masks to protect themselves from air pollution.

Energy Consumption
A major factor behind the suffocating air pollution in Tehran and other Iranian cities is the dramatic rise in the country's energy consumption. From 1980-1998, Iran's total energy consumption ramped up from 1.6 quadrillion Btu (quads) in 1980 to 4.5 quads in 1998--more than a 280% increase. Much of this energy is accounted for by gasoline consumption: the Green Party of Iran reports that Iran ranks second (behind the United States) in gasoline consumption with 4,345 liters (1,148 gallons) consumed annually per car. Tehran's 2 million cars alone use 7 million liters (1.85 million gallons) of gasoline daily. With an abundance of oil in Iran, petroleum products are subsidized, and their cheap cost deprives producers of incentives to make them more fuel-efficient.

Overall, oil makes up 55% of the energy consumed in Iran, with natural gas (43%) making up much of the rest and coal accounting for only a negligible amount. Per capita energy consumption in 1998 was 72.4 million Btu, which is only one-fifth of the U.S. level of 350.7 million Btu, but is still on the increase. Iran's energy intensity--energy consumption per GDP dollar--at 26,900 Btu/$1990 remains above the level of most Western countries, but below many countries in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. By way of comparion, Germany's energy intensity in 1998 was 7,300 Btu/$1990, the United States' was 13,400 Btu/$1990, Saudi Arabia's was 35,100 Btu/$1990, Russia's was 74,200 Btu/$1990, and Azerbaijan's was 101,200 Btu/$1990.

Carbon Emissions
Iran's energy-related carbon emissions have been on a steady climb. Since 1980, carbon emissions in Iran have risen by 240%, from 33.1 million metric tons emitted in 1980 to 79.4 million metric tons emitted in 1998. With the growth in Iran's population has come an increasing number of cars, and automobile exhaust has contributed greatly to the fact that Iran now accounts for 1.3% of the world's total carbon emissions.

Iran's per capita carbon emissions are relatively low--at 1.3 metric tons of carbon emitted per person in 1998, Iran is significantly lower than corresponding figures for the United States (5.5), Germany (2.8), and Russia (2.8). This owes to the fact that Iran consumes very little carbon-intensive coal. However, the widespread use of leaded gasoline and the preponderance of cars lacking catalytic converters in Iran accounts for significant levels of carbon monoxide in urban areas. Although authorities have not released pollution statistics for 1999, in 1998, when several thousand schools were shut down, the carbon monoxide pollution in Tehran was more than six times the acceptable level set by the World Health Organization.

The country's carbon emissions likely will continue to rise until the roots of the problem are addressed. The Green Party of Iran asserts that a shortage of public transport, a rapidly increasing population, and the exorbitant price of new, cleaner cars are the reasons why large numbers of cars lacking pollution-abatement technology remain on the road, despite the health problems they cause. The Green Party argues that Iran needs to support several policy initiatives, including subsidizing the purchase of new, unleaded cars, enforcing emission controls from old cars (Iran is a non-Annex I country under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, nor is it a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol; therefore, it is not bound to reduce its carbon emissions under the convention), providing more public transportation facilities in line with population growth in Tehran, and increasing green spaces in the city.

Alternative Energy Sources
Iran's renewable energy consumption is low. With 9% of the world's oil reserves and 15% of its natural gas reserves (80% of which have not been developed), Iran has an abundant supply of fossil fuel resources, which tends to discourage the pursuit of alternative, renewable energy sources. Iran's 1997 renewable energy consumption--including hydropower, solar, wind, tide, geothermal, solid biomass and animal products, biomass gas and liquids, and industrial and municipal wastes--totaled 106 trillion Btu, a 6% increase over the previous year.

In an attempt to diversify its energy mix from a primarily oil-based economy, Iran is increasing its hydroelectric capacity. Several hydropower plants are currently in operation, and several more are under construction. In addition, Iran would like to increase its nuclear power usage in order eventually to meet 20% of the country's electricity demand, but international concerns about Iran's use of nuclear power for purposes other than electricity generation have limited the country's nuclear capacity.

Iran in the 21st Century
Rapid population growth over the past 20 years has been a significant factor contributing to Iran's environmental problems, and continued high population growth, combined with continued reliance on fossil fuels and increased car usage, likely will exacerbate these problems. The recent pollution crisis in Iran may serve as a significant catalyst for change, however, forcing Iran into action to protect the health of its citizens.

Iran will need to confront its environmental problems head-on if it is to prevent further pollution crises. In addition to phasing out leaded gasoline and requiring catalytic converters on automobiles, Iran may need to take a more long-term approach towards environmental protection in order to safeguard the health of Iran's cities and citizens. By further developing its gas fields, Iran can use more clean-burning natural gas rather than oil for its energy needs. Reducing Iran's reliance on oil and "petrodollars" will not only help to decrease pollution, but will also help Iran diversify its economy.

Although several of these initiatives will be difficult to achieve if Iran's diplomatic isolation continues, the victory of reform-minded candidates in recent Iranian parliamentary elections eventually may lead to a warming of relations beween Iran and the United States and other countries. Ironically, the pollution problem in Tehran may prove to be beneficial to Iran's environment in the long-run--the health crisis spotlighted the need to act to protect Iran's environment and helped foster support for green groups, while encouraging more public participation in environmental affairs.