Ekrem Imamoglu, mayor of Istanbul: the world needs people to take responsibility for change

“Local leaders have to ensure that changes happen. Every action a city takes for climate has an impact on the whole world”. We interviewed Ekrem İmamoğlu, Mayor of Istanbul, about mayors’ key role in tackling the global climate crisis.

“He represents all the things that have been missing for a long time”. This is how a Turkish civil society activist describes Ekrem İmamoğlu, the new mayor of Istanbul. These words probably resonate with millions of citizens who, for the first time in a quarter of a century, witnessed a step towards a more democratic and inclusive country.

Ekrem Imamoglu, Mayor of Istanbul
Ekrem İmamoğlu was elected mayor of Istanbul on 23 June 2019, after having won a first round of elections in March whose results were annulled © Chris McGrath/Getty Images

İmamoğlu ran in opposition to the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) – the one led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The mayoral candidate, a newcomer to the political scene, won the elections in March with a clear margin, but his victory was annulled. However, in the second round of voting, İmamoğlu’s triumph left no room for doubt.

Ekrem İmamoğlu calls for climate action alongside other mayors in Copenhagen

Even though he’s already won what many thought was an impossible race, İmamoğlu is convinced that the challenges are just beginning. He presented his plan to create a greener, more inclusive and more resilient Istanbul at the C40 World Mayors Summit held in Copenhagen, Denmark, from 9 to 12 October, where mayors from cities committed to fighting against the climate crisis all over the world met to discuss the necessary steps for the future.

On this occasion, İmamoğlu co-signed the Deadline 2020 Pledge, a commitment to enact climate plans to ensure the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement are achieved. We spoke to the mayor in Copenhagen, and asked him about his experience, ideas and expectations around the ongoing climate crisis, and cities’ importance on the global stage.

Ekrem Imamoglu, Mayor of Istanbul
Mayor of Istanbul Ekrem İmamoğlu in Copenaghen for the C40 World Mayors Summit © Camilla Soldati/LifeGate

In what way has the city of Istanbul been affected by the climate crisis, and what is it doing to combat it?
Much like the rest of the world, Istanbul has suffered the effects of climate change. Unprecedented levels of rainfall and flooding have been recorded, as well as lengthy periods of drought. These happen both in winter and summer, affecting the natural environment as well as agricultural activities around the city. Even though we’re a new administration, we’re already focusing on these issues. What we need to do now is take a snapshot of Istanbul to gather all the data we need, such as CO2 emissions levels. This will establish a starting point which will be used to compare what we’ll achieve over the next five years. And we’ll share this information with the world.

How important are cities in terms of environmental policies at the national level? Can they push governments to act?
Istanbul has a population of 16 million people. Whatever is done there has a big impact on national politics. If good practices are developed in Istanbul, the rest of Turkey will accept them and adapt. We’ll use this influence on Turkey to take steps forwards with regards to the climate crisis. Our expertise isn’t just for our city, but for all of Turkey and humanity. Therefore, yes, I do expect that our policies will profoundly influence national politics.

The climate movement has been growing all over the world, especially among young people. How have you seen it grow in your city?
There are several groups of activists in Istanbul. There are people of all ages, but I’m most enthusiastic about young people and their courage. They’re conscientous, well-informed and sensible. It’s likely that if the world was made up just of this generation, it would quickly take serious action against climate change.

How is this movement perceived by citizens?
There’s definitely a part of society that doesn’t understand it and doesn’t want it to be prioritised. But I believe that if we try to explain it in the best way possible, the majority of people would be willing to understand and take action. Therefore, I don’t see it as a clash between citizens, but as an opportunity for integration.

And what about institutions?
To be honest, I don’t think it’s going to be easy. It’s going to take time. Many people, businesses and institutions have old habits that will be hard to let go of. In many countries there is the belief that the costs of making changes are a waste, and this could be discouraging, initially. But this is exactly where people like me, local leaders, can take responsibility to ensure that these changes come about. From my perspective, I can say that I’ll manage this process and motivate people. It’ll just take time.

Ekrem Imamoglu, Mayor of Istanbul
Ekrem İmamoğlu in Istanbul © Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Which aspects would you like to focus on from the very start?
I want to highlight the fact that Istanbul suffers from bad urbanisation, and this is having a negative effect on its inhabitants. Citizens are being separated from natural environments, especially in certain areas. My priority is to turn this problem into something positive. We believe that by defining a coherent vision of our city’s future, everything is possible. One of the most important factors in determining how the city will be more just, green and creative is taking the effects of climate change into account. In particular, we’re working to increase green spaces, which have been reduced across the city. Our plan is to create 30 million square metres of usable green areas in the next five years. And we’re also increasing investments in clean and renewable energy thanks to a series of projects.

You were able to win over the city at a time when being part of the opposition is extremely difficult. You ran twice, and won both times. What do you think this means for the country’s future?
The answer to this lies precisely in my experience. It shows me that you must never sever the dialogue and ties with your people. That you should always communicate with people. That actions and policies must always be explained clearly and transparently. That we must take responsibility and always answer questions. If the ties are kept strong, and a feeling of tolerance is built – a key factor in Istanbul – then all problems can be solved. Because you start seeing people not as opposition, but as fellow citizens.

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