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.
The Israeli share in global mitigation fight is unused leverage for a better domestic energy market.
Israel joined the global effort to abate climate change relatively recently. It was in 2009, following strong pressure from the environmental NGO community and the appointment of a new Environmental Protection Minister, that the Israeli government committed to a Green House Gas emission reduction target of 20% of expected growth based on a Business As Usual scenario by 2020.
This positive step, (perhaps the only positive outcome of COP15, held in Copenhagen 2009) was followed by the establishment of an inter-ministerial committee, and the creation of an unprecedented National Mitigation Plan that 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 doesn’t require a shift in the current unsustainable patterns. Indeed, as government officials state repeatedly, Israel’s share in the global GHG emissions is less than 0.5%, 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 Germany, Japan, South Korea and the UK. Business As Usual (BAU) scenarios include continuous growth of population, along with an increase in consumption and demand for a modernized western life style. Increase of demand for electricity production is among the highest in the world, doubling every decade. Therefore, it is not surprising (though unacceptable), that we are anticipating an increase of 11% in GHG emissions per capita by 2025 from the year 2000.
In order to ensure a sustainable future, Israel must adopt a daring vision that will challenge the BAU 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 sole largest carbon emitter 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 dealt with. In addition, no single authority was appointed to follow the implementation process and no mid-term goals or indicators were set to verify successful progress of the plan.
However, the most crucial obstacle in the implementation of the National Mitigation Plan is the absence of a comprehensive climate policy. Lacking an overarching vision and targets, the Israeli government is still promoting contradictory measures, which would make any emission reduction target unachievable.
The “startup nation” that exports solar technology abroad and is famous for the early implementation of solar water heaters (already obligated in 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, limited approved quota for electricity production under the monopoly of the only electricity producer, and exhausting entrepreneurs with a long bureaucratic maze. The result: a governmental decision from 2009 to produce 2% of electricity by renewable energy by 2007 hasn’t been reached yet, and subsequent targets – 5% of the energy by 2016 and 10% by 2020 seem far, far away.
Recent gas discoveries could assist the 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 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 400 degrees Celsius 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 great support from the government. A coalition of NGOs, academia and the area’s residents was recently established to block this initiative, which presents many risks 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 IPCC, 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, spear headed by the Ministry of Environmental Protection has recently begun to create a National Adaptation plan, starting by mapping current relevant knowledge gaps regarding climate change influences on the country’s economy, agriculture, cities, public health, geo-political situation etc.
Research predicts ongoing increases in temperature, along with a further drop in rainfall leading to a decrease in drinking water availability and quality – both resulting in significant implications on food and water security, public health risks, geopolitical implications and many others.
One example of climate change impact already affecting Israel is the increase of climate refugees in Tel Aviv and other cities. Mostly referred to as “work immigrants”, these people are unrecognized by the authorities, dwelling in the street and in unbearable conditions, until local residents’ complaints finally led to dire policy of their banishment outside of Israel’s borders. As hunger and drought in Africa worsen, with a possible scenario of millions escaping from flooding at the Nile delta caused by a rise in sea level, one of the significant implications to the entire area of the Mediterranean is a sharp increase in the number of refugees, seeking water, food, and shelter further north. Currently, the government’s strategy is to build fences all around the country’s borders, including the sea. Surely, such an idea cannot hold up as a viable solution. As a country established by immigrants and refugees, Israel must recognize the African refugees’ distress, and act to solve it at its root cause, using its expertise in advanced agriculture and water efficiency, while promoting regional collaborations.
A survey done in 2009 by Ph.D. candidate Lucy Michaels fromat Ben Gurion University, indicated low public awareness to climate change and its impacts in Israel, as the majority of respondents placed climate change as the issue of least concern on a long list of topics, including security, water scarcity, national economy and so on. Lack of awareness is caused by a low profile of the issue in local media, but also by a lack of a clear message from the government. This must be changed, and the key is a change in point of view. Once the links between the changing climate to everyday life will be clear, there’s no doubt the public will be interested in the reasons behind sharp fluctuations in food prices, the rising threats to its favorite parks, new threats to its health and so on.
Here too, wider government support is urgently needed. As a real threat to the country’s stability, this cannot remain “an environmental issue”, but must be integrated into main decision making processes in all governmental areas. And special support and guidance must be given to local government, which will be facing the challenges and will have to address them first hand. 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 presenting real change- such as the new waste management policy, the clean air act and other legislation, the emerging national plan for green growth, and the National Mitigation plan. To strengthen these steps and allow Israel to fully benefit from them, the Paths to Sustainability Coalition urges the government of Israel to anchor them with a bold 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 Israel’s potential for technological innovation.
The writer is the 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.