It's the 'Green' Economy, Stupid - Environment

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March 22, 2012
Sagit Porat

“Considering we have been cleared by such strict security checks at the entrance to this conference, it seems a shame not to be boarding a flight” said a colleague of mine at the National Conference on Green Growth held at the end of February 2012 in Tel Aviv. Long queues, magnetic gates and security questioning might be a reasonable price to pay for the keynote speech by PM Netanyahu at an environmental conference, an unusual occurrence in Israel thus far, if it symbolizes the mobilization of the government’s attention and decision-making to bettering the environment and directing the Israeli economy to more environmentally-socially sustainable directions. The actual speeches and discussions at the conference, however, not to mention the actions behind them, leave a lot to be desired.

This rainy season has seen an unprecedented abundance of environmental conferences, and much more is yet to come. Those of us working in the environmental field had to constantly juggle our schedules and evaluate between the promise (not always delivered) of learning something new, and getting more work done. There’s always so much work to be done… In a way, this particular conference had an internally-conflicting appeal: the labelling of the event as a national effort and attendance of high-level speakers, supposedly elevated the environmental discourse from the contained sphere of the environmental and professional community to impact decision making at the highest levels, and introduce the concept of sustainability as a key component of economic policy. However the very same ‘national effort’ labelling and dignitary speakers ensured we were subject to plenty of platitudes, not always backed by action (or even the intent thereof…).

MK Gilad Erdan, Minister of Environmental Protection, is certainly pushing forth the urgent need for a sustainability paradigm in Israel, and is putting his un-negligible political might behind it. But for his entire valour, and despite noticeable infiltration of awareness to sustainability into government, both planning and implementation in these spheres are still very far from being satisfactory – or anywhere near the levels demonstrated by other OECD countries.

A panel of senior government ministers at the conference – including Ministers Landau, in charge of energy and water, and Katz, who should be bettering our transportation – discussed their contribution to Green Growth. What a display of a forward-thinking government. Or is it? Unfortunately, they weren’t asked on that stage – and so never had to justify – why their ministries repeatedly refuse to partake in cross-governmental, inter-ministerial efforts, such as the national plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions led by the Ministry of Finance, or the present roundtable process on green growth, which is headed jointly by the ministries of Environmental Protection and Industry, Trade and Labor.

But can there be a real comprehensive, governmental plan to reduce emissions, or a green economic strategy (or any economic strategy, for that matter) that doesn’t include energy production or transportation? This writer doesn’t think so. Some (albeit a minority of) NGO participants of the Green Growth Roundtable meeting, which closed the conference, went as far as advocating that the whole process was worthless, since it was so obviously lacking in addressing some of the fundamentally major faults of the current system.

It was interesting to appreciate, though, that glimpses of headway were noted rather from those representing what we might have considered the more conservative economic sector. Stanley Fischer, Governor of the Bank of Israel, honestly shared with the audience that it was the first ‘green’ presentation he ever gave, but delved into considerations of alternative or complementary indices to GDP; (It should be noted that the Ministry of Environmental Protection is making interesting progress developing such an index, but the support it will have from the rest of the government is still to be seen.) And Eugene Kandel, Head of the National Economic Council at the Prime Minister's Office, noted some appreciation to green economic practices.

As mentioned, the day ended with a Green Growth Roundtable meeting, marking a modest milestone in an interesting and promising process of developing a national plan, through a series of discussions and exchanges between representatives of different sectors, including government, businesses and industry, civil society and academia. While this process has real potential for positive change, it also suffers from some very significant faults, some of which were mentioned above, and further include difficulties in developing genuine discourse between these many parties, on issues that warrant professional knowledge and thorough investigation, in a very limited timeframe.

This process is still ongoing and should be further explored and discussed. It undoubtedly poses challenges to all participating organizations and sectors, not least of which are the NGOs. We must find ways to interpret our vision and advocacy for better policies on sustainability to very practical tracks, and should figure out ways of utilizing our very limited resources so as not to miss this opportunity to impact actual change. The NGOs might be at somewhat of a disadvantage in professional knowhow when it comes to detailing specific measures for specific industries with regard to greening their production and activities. But overall their inputs to this process, by suggesting a range of processes and introducing alternative thinking of what a good economy consists of, and what our future should and could be, other than the conventional business-as-usual-maintaining-the-system thinking by the business sector and government, are invaluable.

10 years ago, in preparation for the Rio+10 Earth Summit in Johannesburg, a group of Israeli NGOs got together to write a ‘Shadow Report’, critiquing the government’s lack of progress on sustainable development issues. Throughout the years, now leading up to Rio+20, the “Paths to Sustainability” coalition continues to asses and suggest better ways of action, primarily evaluating sustainability through economic prisms. And we can modestly claim a substantial stake in promoting whatever progress was indeed made this past decade with regard to sustainable development and climate policies in Israel. These achievements were made not only through criticism, but also by partaking in official committees and policy discussions, and an interesting partnership with the Ministry for Environmental Protection.

Recently these efforts joined forces with a project presenting A Green New Deal for Israel, called Economics of Tomorrow. The attempt is to take a broader look at the Israeli economy. Not merely suggesting pointed shifts in attention, regulation, policies and budgets from private to public transportation, from fossil fuels to renewables; but a more comprehensive critique of the faults of the system: examining labour markets and social impacts, taking into consideration gender issues and those who remain on the socio-economic margins of Israeli society, which must all be considered in a sustainable economy; introducing progressive thinking and integrating social and environmental wellbeing to the development of society and community, and therefore the economy.

The fundamental challenge is still one for the Israeli government. It must find ways to make this process inclusive of all pertinent ministries; it should ensure ‘sustainability’ is addressed in the true and broad sense, and make the necessary interfaces with other relevant programs addressing social issues and disparities, employment and welfare, gender and minorities etc.; and despite the importance of the upcoming ‘deadline’ for this process in a couple of months with next year’s budgetary legislation and the Rio+20 Conference, it needs to have longer term goals and plans of action, and rather than a finite activity, define this as only the very first stage of a long and continuous process of joint learning and sustainable development.

Sagit Porat is the editor of the Economics of Tomorrow project, which introduces a Green New Deal to Israel. She coordinates the work of Israeli environmental NGOs on green economics, is the professional director of the Institute of Business and the Environment at Tel Aviv University, and a member of the leadership group of the Green Movement.