In Tel Aviv – Tears; In New York – Cheers - Environment

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February 16, 2012
Naor Yerushalmi

In Tel Aviv – Tears; In New York – Cheers

Industry must understand that internalizing social and environmental considerations will improve not only all of our futures, but also its own financial sustainability.

Two recent conferences have illustrated the tremendous gap in how the topic of environment is treated in the business sector in Israel and in the West. Some 500 investors and CEOs from around the world, representing investments in excess of 22 trillion dollars, participated in the CERES Conference at the UN Headquarters in New York. CERES is a coalition of investors and civil society organizations that addresses sustainable development policy. The participants presented competing declarations regarding the hidden opportunity in finance for addressing the climate crisis. The main message was that businesses have a role – as well as tremendous chances of generating revenue – by adapting themselves to the new reality. Bankers, real estate moguls, industrialists and decision-makers explained with enthusiasm that investing in renewable energy is a proven technological investment that comes with considerable profits. “It’s our responsibility as businesses to respond to the signals that the world is sending us that more can be accomplished with less, particularly in the exploitation of natural resources such as water and energy,” said the Vice President of General Electric. There are tremendous opportunities in these fields, he stated, for entrepreneurs and investors around the world, particularly in countries such as Australia, China, India and Brazil. He warned that companies that fail to understand this are likely to become irrelevant to their own markets.

A major American labor leader emphasized at the conference that environmental work will ensure a situation where all parties profit through job creation, ensured earnings for investors, and making headway with a problem that endangers the future of the human race.  “The time of non-action on environmental issues has passed,” said Ofer Eyni’s American counterpart.

A few days after the CERES conference, a conference entitled “The Environmental Conference of the Future” was held in Tel Aviv.  The heads of the giant companies on the Israeli market competed in their desperate railing against the government’s environmental regulation, viewed as stymieing industrial creativity and functioning as a disincentive to reducing the damage it causes to society.  The message of the heads of industry was that the topic of environment was an obstacle that needed to be circumvented, and that the government should repeal some of the regulation in order to make it easier for industry to operate in these realms.

The Vice President of Israel Chemicals Ltd. demanded regulatory stability from the government, and charged that “every few days there’s a new law.” The president of Israel’s largest beverage company claimed that industry has “run up against unreasonable demands, and is being attacked on social justice issues.” He called for the word “stick” to be removed from the dictionary and that only “carrot” remains. The CEO of Better Place stated that the Ministry of the Environment lacks suitable tools, and is incapable of making decisions that have a bearing on economic policy.

What do people see in New York that is not understood in Tel Aviv? Apparently a financial reality where it is necessary to stand up to real competition and not hide behind the protective apron of government breaks  acting like the victimized perpetrator who has been wronged by the supposedly increasing regulations.  And perhaps also an economic reality in which the climate crisis is creating tremendous financial opportunities in the form of investments and advanced technological solutions, the generation of energy from renewable sources and housing solutions that incorporate reduced resource consumption by builders and residents alike.

Israel’s business community should be attentive to the voices emanating from New York. Industry must understand that internalizing social and environmental considerations will improve not only all of our futures, but also its own financial sustainability. Instead of whining about government regulation in the environmental field, which is also long overdue, it is necessary to work together with the government, in consultation with academic experts and civil society in order to promote innovative and advanced solutions to the environmental problems created by industry.

Thus, instead of trying to stave off the end and continue to pollute, industrialists will be able to become market leaders in environmental innovation, introduce achievements in Israeli export, and perhaps even to improve our international status as leaders who offer solutions to the global climate crisis.

The writer is the Executive Director of “Life and Environment,” an umbrella organization for environmental NGOs in Israel.