For lifelong environmentalist and soon-to-be Knesset newcomer Yael Cohen Paran, achieving a cleaner, more breathable Israel means transforming theoretical targets into tangible action.
“Sometimes, it’s better to [set] more modest goals and work toward them,” she told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
An activist in the sector since her days as a university student, Cohen Paran will be the first member of an environmental party – the Green Movement – to join the legislature. As part of her new role, she hopes to raise awareness among politicians about some of the country’s most pressing environmental issues, push forward plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions and integrate renewable energy sources, among other projects.
In the coming weeks, the Green Movement co-chairwoman is slated to replace Labor Party MK Dani Atar in the Zionist Union Knesset faction, following his election late Monday night to become chairman of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund. While World Zionist Congress delegates elected Atar to the position, his chairmanship is still pending the approval of the KKL-JNF board of directors.
Cohen Paran was a candidate during last March’s national election for Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party, which ran together with Labor as the Zionist Union list. Once she enters the Knesset, it will have a record 32 female MKs.
This will be the third time the record has been broken since the March election, after MK Sharren Haskel (Likud) replaced now-ambassador to the UN Danny Danon and MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Bayit Yehudi) took the Knesset seat of Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Cohen Paran began volunteering in the Green Course nationwide student organization in the 1990s, eventually taking on leadership positions.
In 2007, she founded the Israel Energy Forum and today remains the group’s CEO, a position she will have to relinquish upon entering the Knesset. Cohen Paran became co-chairwoman of the Green Movement in July 2013, alongside Eran Ben Yemini, an environmentalist and educator who founded the party with Prof. Alon Tal in 2008.
Since its establishment, the Green Movement has made two failed bids to win representation in the Knesset.
In 2009, Ben Yemini and Tal were second and third, respectively, on a combined list with the Meimad party, but the list won no seats. Four years later, in the Green Movement’s first alliance with Livni’s Hatnua, Tal was No. 13 on the list, but only six candidates won Knesset seats.
After a narrow miss in the recent March election, Cohen Paran now has the chance to make the Green Movement’s political visions a reality.
One issue of top concern is the government’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, tied directly to the Conference of Parties (COP-21) to be convened by the United Nations in Paris in December.
About a month ago, the cabinet approved its new emissions reduction targets for 2030, as a precursor toward submitting Israel’s intended national determined contribution (INDC) plan to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2030, the goals involve having renewable energy source 17% of the nation’s electricity, as well as decreasing electricity consumption by 17% by that year.
Calling the cabinet’s decision a “compromise” with “very low targets,” Cohen Paran acknowledged that “on the other hand, it put something on the agenda.”
She attributed the low targets to a general lack of interest on the issue on the part of Israel’s politicians.
“Of course I would have rather there be much more serious targets and a serious commitment to reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.
“Unfortunately, the political situation does not allow it right now.”
Cohen Paran emphasized the need for Israel to increase both public and private incentives toward transitioning to more efficient energy use, as well as overhaul of the transportation sector. Particularly urgent in this arena will be fine-tuning plans to improve the air pollution that plagues the Haifa Bay region, she added.
She expressed hopes that not only she would be able to represent Israel at COP-21, but that President Reuven Rivlin would choose to do so, as then-president Shimon Peres did at COP- 15 in Copenhagen in 2009.
“All over the world, leaders are dealing with climate change,” Cohen Paran said. “The Paris convention seems to be one of the most serious in the last 10 years.”
There, participant nations aim to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement to ensure that global warming never surpasses 2° C.
“I think Israel has to take part in this global action plan,” she added. “It’s much cheaper to act now than to wait and not do anything and continue to build and have infrastructure and industries that are not energy efficient.”
Part of acting now means expediting renewable energy integration in the country’s electricity mix, with a focus on universalizing access to solar energy production, according to Cohen Paran. She expressed doubts that Israel would achieve its goal of having 10% of its electricity powered by renewable sources by 2020.
“Today, we have 2% renewables, and it’s absolutely ridiculous, especially with the amount of sun we have here,” the Green Movement co-chairwoman said.
While establishing targets is important, they do not help the country if they are simply meaningless figures, she explained.
In parallel with increasing quotas for medium- and largesized photovoltaic fields, Cohen Paran stressed the importance of enabling solar rooftop panels to be installed on a wider scale, by helping households overcome obstacles such as the upfront cash requirements and ongoing tax burdens.
“I will also work on this in the Knesset, and this is something that can make a huge change,” she said.
Turning toward the natural gas sector, Cohen Paran described this resource as a “transition fuel,” critical to the domestic market until renewable energy is really able to take a foothold in the country.
The advancement of Israel’s gas market, and the offshore Leviathan reservoir in particular, continues to face delays due to the failure of a deal between the government and the dominant gas developers to move forward.
Negotiations have gone on for nearly eight months since last December’s announcement by then-antitrust commissioner David Gilo (who stepped down on August 31) that he intended to review whether market dominance of Delek Group and Noble Energy constituted an illegal “restrictive agreement.”
Although the cabinet approved a compromise outline in mid-August, political disagreements have prevented its final authorization.
Cohen Paran slammed the terms of the national gas outline as prioritizing private interests at the expense of the public.
With Delek only required to sell its shares in the Tamar reservoir in six years, and Noble allowed to simply dilute its assets there, she accused the government of “making believe that it will not remain a monopoly.”
The final terms of the gas structure must include stricter price controls to combat such a monopoly, as well as terms that inhibit export before the development of Leviathan, she added.
Another problematic issue, according to Cohen Paran, is that gas today is available from Tamar but only through one pipeline, putting the domestic market at risk. She suggested that the government might put up the money to construct another pipeline, to increase energy security for the country and thereby render the gas companies less powerful.
Stepping out of the environmental and energy sectors, Cohen Paran addressed the security situation, emphasizing that Israel must “stand strong” against those who attack it. She added, however, that the problem cannot be solved with force alone.
“We have to come and deal with the situation and start talking about a two-state solution and start moving toward it,” she said.
“It’s devastating that nothing was done since [Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in summer 2014], where we could have had a coalition of countries that are more moderate in the region, and with their support [reached] some agreement with the Palestinians,” she continued. “Unfortunately, nothing happened. It’s always bringing us to the next time, to the next war, to the next circle of bloodshed.”Gil Hoffman and Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.