Climate Change Policy in Israel Must Become a National Priority

Teaser Image Caption
Israel's first solar field at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Valley

As a relatively new player in the climate change arena, Israel is quickly catching up with many developed countries. However, the road to a comprehensive climate policy is still long

Israel’s part in the global mitigation fight – unused leverage for a better domestic energy market
Israel has recently joined global efforts to abate climate change. In 2009, following strong pressure from environmental NGOs and the appointment of a new Environmental Protection Minister, the Israeli government committed to a greenhouse gas (GHG) emission-reduction target of 20 percent of expected growth according to “business as usual scenarios” by 2020.

This positive step – perhaps the only positive outcome of COP 15, held in Copenhagen in 2009 – was followed by the commissioning of an inter-ministerial committee and the creation of an unprecedented National Mitigation Plan, which was approved and financed for the next decade.

However, the set target is not ambitious enough. The fact that the target is not a net reduction allows for continuous growth in GHG emissions and does not require a shift in the current unsustainable patterns. Indeed, as government officials state repeatedly, Israel’s share of global GHG emissions is less than 0.5 percent, similar to developing countries. But if we look at GHG emission levels per capita, the picture changes. In 2007 the average Israeli emitted about 10.7 tons of CO2 eq., placing Israel in line with industrial countries such as Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. Business as usual scenarios include a continuous growth in population alongside increases in consumption and demands for a modern Western lifestyle. The rising demand for electricity production is among the highest in the world, doubling every decade. Therefore, it is not surprising (though still unacceptable), that we are facing an increase of 11 percent in GHG emissions per capita by 2025 from the year 2000.

The National Mitigation Plan left out the main polluter

In order to ensure a sustainable future, Israel must adopt a daring vision that will challenge the business as usual scenario and set new priorities. The existing target must be regarded as a preliminary one, and new, long-term, ambitious targets must be set today, along with an action plan and performance indicators.
Moreover, even a complete implementation of the National Mitigation Plan will not suffice to achieve the set target. The largest source of carbon emissions in Israel – electricity production – was not included in the National Mitigation Plan, and other sources with major reduction potential, such as transportation and green building, were not adequately addressed. In addition, no single authority was appointed to follow the implementation process and no midterm goals or indicators were set to verify successful progress of the project.

However, the most crucial obstacle in the implementation of the National Mitigation Plan is the absence of a comprehensive climate policy. With the lack of an overarching vision and targets, the Israeli government is still promoting contradictory measures that would make any emission-reduction target unachievable.

The “startup nation” that exports solar technology abroad and is famous for the very early implementation of solar water heaters (obligatory for new building since the 1950s) is failing to implement renewable energy sources at home. The government seems to impede entrepreneurs in every possible way: providing very limited financial support, limiting approved quotas for electricity production under the monopoly of the only electricity producer, and exhausting entrepreneurs with a long bureaucratic maze. The result is that a governmental decision from 2009 to produce 2 percent of electricity from renewable energy by 2007 has not been reached yet; the following targets – 5 percent of electricity by 2016 and 10 percent by 2020 – seem far, far away.

Recent gas discoveries could assist in emission-reduction efforts significantly. However, it is becoming clear that the government intends to allow the firms to export most of the gas abroad, condemning the local market to dependency on dirty oil. No wonder the environmental movement has recognized this decision as a major threat to sustainable development.

Another serious threat the environmental movement is fighting is a massive oil shale project being planned in the Adulam region, a unique natural area in the south of Israel. The initiators – who intend to use a new technology of heating the underground shales up to 400ºC for four years in order to liquefy and pump the oil – claim to have a perfectly safe solution for Israel’s dependency on oil, and enjoy significant support from the government. A coalition consisting of NGOs, academia, and the area’s residents was recently established to block this initiative, which presents a great risk not only to the region’s natural assets, but also to its underground water reservoir, and of course to the general air quality and energy market.

Resilience-building – Because climate change is already here

According to the International Panel on Climate Change, Israel is highly prone to various impacts of climate change due to its location in the heart of the Middle East. An inter-ministerial committee spearheaded by the Ministry of Environmental Protection has recently begun to create a National Adaptation Plan, starting by mapping current relevant knowledge gaps regarding the influence of climate change on the country’s economy, agriculture, built environment, public health, geo-political situation, etc.

Research predicts continual increases in temperature, alongside further decreases in rainfall, leading to lower levels of drinking water availability and lower quality – both resulting in significant impacts on food and water security, public health risks, geopolitical implications, among others.

One example of a climate change impact already affecting Israel is the increase in climate refugees in Tel Aviv and other cities. Mostly referred to as “work immigrants,” these people are unrecognized by the authorities, dwelling in streets in unbearable conditions, until local residents’ complaints finally lead to the cold policy of banishing them beyond Israel’s borders. As hunger and drought in Africa worsen – with a possible scenario of millions escaping flooding at the Nile delta caused by sea level rises – one of the significant implications for the entire Mediterranean area is a sharp increase in the number of refugees moving north who are seeking water, food, and shelter. Currently, the government’s strategy is to build fences all around the country’s borders, including along the sea. Surely, such an idea cannot stand as a viable solution. As it is a country based on immigrants and refugees, Israel must recognize the African refugees’ distress and act to solve it at its roots, using its expertise in advanced agriculture and water efficiency, while promoting regional collaborations.

The key to change is a change in points of view

A survey done in 2009 by PhD candidate Lucy Michales at Ben Gurion University indicated low public awareness about climate change and its impacts on Israel. The majority of respondents placed climate change as the least concerning issue in a long list of topics, including security, water scarcity, national economy, and so on. Lack of awareness is caused by the low profile of the issue in the local media, but also by the lack of a clear message from the government. This must be changed, and the key is changes in points of view. Once the links between changing climate and everyday life are clear, there is no doubt the public will be interested in the reasons for sharp fluctuations in food prices, the rising threats to its favorite parks, new threats to its health, among other things.

Here, too, broader governmental support is urgently needed. As it is a real threat to the country’s stability, it cannot remain “an environmental issue” but must be integrated into the main decision-making processes in all governmental areas. Special support and guidance must be given to the local governments, which will be facing the challenges and will have to address them firsthand. Climate adaptation and mitigation strategies must be linked to one another as well as to other strategic plans.

During the last couple of years, Israel has launched quite a few positive environmental projects. Some of them represent a real revolution – such as the new waste management policy; the clean air act and other new laws; the emerging national plan for green growth; and the National Mitigation Plan. To strengthen these steps and allow Israel to enjoy their benefits, the Paths to Sustainability Coalition urges the government of Israel to anchor them with a daring vision and formulate a comprehensive climate policy that will allow Israel to effectively mitigate climate change and adapt to its implications. A strategic view is needed to seize the opportunities of a low-carbon economy and its technological inventiveness.

Maya Milrad-Givon is Coalition Coordinator of The Paths to Sustainability Coalition which is spearheaded by Life and Environment, the Israeli Union of Environmental NGOs. The Coalition includes dozens of NGOs and has been promoting policies to address sustainable development and climate change vis-à-vis the Israeli Parliament and government since 2002.



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