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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Gilad Erdan (Likud) took advantage of Environment Day at the Knesset on Tuesday and his first appearance there as environmental protection minister to present the ministry's "top five" goals for the next year and a half.
They are: proper processing of waste; reducing air pollution and emissions; preventing climate change; increasing enforcement; and promoting the green economy.
Some of these issues were also priorities for the previous minister, Gideon Ezra (Kadima), such as air pollution, enforcement and waste.
Erdan seems to be bringing more of a focus on readying Israel for fighting climate change than his predecessor did. A successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol for reducing greenhouse emissions is set to be worked out this December in Copenhagen and it is likely that Israel will be obligated by the new agreement set to go into effect in 2012. Therefore, Erdan has imbued a sense of urgency toward developing a national plan and specific goals to reduce emissions.
Earlier on Tuesday, the creation of an interministerial directors-general committee was approved to develop a national plan to fight global warming.
The top five goals match areas in which the country, the government and the ministry have been lagging thus far.
Out of 3,500 tons of construction and demolition waste produced yearly in Israel, only 700 tons are recycled. Much of it is haphazardly dumped in open spaces by private companies and even some local authorities.
Erdan told the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee the ministry would work to improve that ratio and also to develop clients for recycled aggregate material - for example, the National Roads Authority.
He also said the ministry would work to put in place more of an infrastructure for recycling and for separating garbage at its source.
Air pollution has become an increasing problem in the major urban centers. Environmental Protection Ministry director-general Yossi Inbar told the MKs that electricity production generates 53 percent of the air pollution, transportation 31% and industry 16%. The switch from coal or petroleum to natural gas would reduce the emissions from electricity production considerably, he said.
He also said that the ministry would focus on several pollution "hot spots" such as the Negev's Ramat Hovav Industrial Park (where the country's most toxic wastes are stored), the Haifa Bay area and Ashdod.
In what he termed a relatively new approach for the ministry, Inbar said it would look at the overall pollution picture for each company or agency rather than focus specifically on air pollution or ground contamination.
Enforcement has been a noticeable weak point of the ministry, with around 30 inspectors for the entire country. The ministry will continue to take steps to improve, Erdan and Inbar said.
Around the world, "greening the economy" has been touted as a way out of the global financial crisis and countries have invested enormous sums of money toward that purpose, Erdan told the committee. Israel has a unique opportunity to export its clean tech expertise as well as to use it at home and create a many new jobs, he said.
We must use our technology to reduce air pollution as well, he said.
Reaching the environmental standards for developed countries and being recategorized as a developed rather than developing country would also do wonders for the economy, Erdan said.
MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) said "greening" Israel's companies would soon become a necessity if the firms wanted to continue winning contracts abroad, where standards had been tightened.
The proposed 2009 base budget for the Environmental Protection Ministry will be NIS 200 million, up about NIS 50m. from last year. With credit lines and revenues from related sources, the budget would reach NIS 410m. in 2009 and NIS 465m. in 2010. That is still far below some of the other ministries' budgets.
Israel Union for Environmental Defense head Tzipi Iser Itzik praised the new direction of the ministry, but said it would still have to prove itself with action.
"We are happy that the ministry's goals seem to agree with our assessments, but the real test is in the doing," she said. "Just this week, the government declined to support most of the environmental bills that came up for discussion in the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. It is all well and good to talk a good game, Mr. Erdan, but the real test is in action!"
Environment Day at the Knesset was co-sponsored by Life and Environment, the umbrella organization of environmental NGOs in Israel, and the Knesset Social-Environmental Lobby. There were 10 committee meetings about environmental issues and two meetings of the lobby on environmental topics, as well as a discussion in the plenum.
Meanwhile, outside the Knesset, the Green Course student organization set up a demonstration directed at Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud).
"There's basically no one in the Environmental Protection Ministry dealing with the issue of public transportation," Green Course head Gil Ya'acov told The Jerusalem Post after the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee meeting. "It is totally in the hands of the Transportation Ministry, and they are oblivious to the environmental implications."