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The Environmental Protection Ministry's chief scientist sounded the alarm this week when he said Israel had no coherent renewable energy program and no coordinated plans to tackle the "already visible effects" of global climate change on the country.
Speaking Wednesday at a solar power conference at Ben-Gurion University's National Solar Energy Center in Sde Boker, Dr. Yishayahu Bar-Or said that although Israel was a minor player in contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, the effects of global climate change, and especially global warming, were becoming tangible in the country and that Israel needed a coherent policy of renewable energy production to be included within a larger plan of dealing with the effects of global warming.
Yishayahu has been talking about Israel's need to tackle climate change for several years.
This year, 2007, is expected to be the hottest ever, scientists at the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in a report released last month.
Among other symptoms, a heat season with a sustained higher-than-normal temperature means an increase in water usage for soil irrigation and personal consumption, as well as increased electricity for cooling systems in buildings.
Last year, Israel witnessed a spate of electricity outages as the Israel Electric Corporation's systems crashed under the heavy demand, and several scientists at the conference said demand for electricity this year was expected to exceed that of 2006. This, they said, requires, for the short-term, a focus on alternative energy sources should the main grids once again overload and crash, and longer-term solutions such as the financing and construction of Integrated Photovoltaic solar power stations.
"If we want to survive the next summers, we need to 'shave loads' [reduce energy consumption]," Bar-Or said, adding that for the first time in Israeli history, a committee made up of ministry directors-general and chief scientists from several ministries will meet in two weeks to establish a national program to prepare Israel for the effects of climate change.
Officials and chief scientists from the Environment, Infrastructures, Transportation, Agriculture and Interior Ministries will convene, together with the Treasury. The aim of the meeting is to come up with a coordinated research plan to give to the government, which will need to make decisions in line with the expected effects of global warming. These decisions will affect a vast array of future infrastructure, agricultural, housing and water drainage projects.
As the consecutive number of heat days rises, and Israel's annual water recharge decreases (fewer rainy days), the government also will have to take into consideration stricter water conservation measures.
Bar-Or characterized Israel's efforts so far to deal with climate change as "a bits and pieces policy," adding that the government's goal of attaining a 2 percent renewable energy output within the gross national energy output by the end of the year "is not going to happen."
What is also unlikely to be implemented is the June 2006 government decision to produce up to 10 percent of the country's electricity with renewable energy in 10 years, Bar-Or told The Jerusalem Post.
"It's not moving and not being implemented in the field because this plan has not been placed very high on the national agenda. Right now the government is dragging its feet on this because traditional energy sources are cheaper, for now," Bar-Or said.
The Infrastructures Ministry is planning to establish a third coal-energy plant in the Ashkelon area. While coal is a polluter, it is a cheap and abundant form of energy. The Environmental Protection Ministry has raised objections to the plan, but is not optimistic it will manage to scuttle the program.
Meanwhile, a plan to establish a nuclear power plant has so far not raised the ire of the ministry, and Bar-Or said he is willing to weigh the proposal "without prior prejudice" as solutions to nuclear fuel waste exist.
The main focus of the ministry is to encourage the rapid development and deployment of solar power stations, "which is not happening fast enough," Bar-Or said.
Meanwhile, it was announced this week that a tender for building Israel's first solar-power plant is to be issued this year. The 250-megawatt plant will be built on 4,000 dunams (1,000 acres) in the Ashalim complex in the Negev.
At the meeting in March, several programs - which have dealt with soil erosion, environmental protection and water conservation - will be presented to the committee. Energy issues also will be on the agenda, Bar-Or said.
"There is no doubt that plans will call for decreasing the peaks of energy consumption as the number of consecutive hot days increases," Bar-Or said, adding that he thought it would take three to four years to establish a more comprehensive climate change plan.
The Environment, Infrastructures and Finance Ministries have reached an agreement on a working document for the meeting, which is meant to encourage innovative technologies and industry incentives to improve existing environmental technologies and develop new ones.
According to experts, Israel can expect a wide range of challenges resulting directly and indirectly from the global warming phenomenon, including drought, an increase in forest and bush fires, the arrival, establishment and expansion of invasive species or pests that transport more pathogens and damage to forests. A delayed growing season will reduce Israel's advantage over colder countries in early exports of flowers, fruits and vegetables.
In November 2000, Israel submitted its First National Communication to the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The report presented the national greenhouse gas inventory compiled for the year 1996, proposed mitigation options for reducing emissions in different sectors, a proposed climate change action plan, an overview of research and observation on climate change and a preliminary assessment of vulnerability and adaptation measures to climate change.
According to the report, which was commissioned by the Environment Ministry the from the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the projected climate change scenario for Israel for the year 2100 includes:
A mean temperature increase of 1.6 -1.8 C
Reduction in precipitation
Delayed winter rains
Increased rain intensity and shortening of the rainy season
Greater seasonal temperature variability
Increased frequency and severity of extreme climate events
Greater spatial and temporal climatic uncertainty
A sea level rise of 12-88 cm
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, Bar-Or said the 2000 paper "has been shelved," although some important research work has been carried out on adaptations to climate change. "In 2000, when the paper was published, it really only interested a small number of ['green'] freaks. In 2004, things started moving slightly, especially in the air quality and water sectors," Bar-Or said. Several research programs focusing on climate change adaptation were funded in 2004 and will be presented at the committee meeting.
"Environmental thinking is not very high on the Israeli agenda; we have other pressing problems no less severe. The public thinks that the quality of the air it breathes is important, but it is not ready to place that issue high on the national agenda," Bar-Or said, adding that a coalition of interested parties needed to be established to make any headway on environmental issues.
He singled out the Housing and Construction Ministry and the Builders Association as bodies that were more interested in providing affordable homes for the population, than with environmentally sound building policies.
"Their agenda is to build cheap - even at the cost of saving energy in the long run. They do not want to raise costs now," Bar-Or said.
According to the climate change report, energy requirements for winter heating and summer cooling of buildings will increase due to global warming. Designing buildings and urban areas in ways that buffer temperature changes will serve as an adaptation for overall warming and the increased frequency of temperature extremes.
Scientists say about half of all emissions that damage the Earth's atmosphere emanate from buildings with non-environmental building standards, such as high-rise office and residential buildings that use a lot of energy, especially in heat control. In a statement, the Housing Ministry said it is in the midst of finalizing a new construction code for building in Israel, which includes an emphasis on environmental aspects such as thermal operations.
Also speaking at the conference, which was held under the auspices of the Blaustein Institute for Scientific Cooperation, was Prof. Susan Roaf, a solar energy expert and lecturer at Arizona State University. Referring to the large number of dead in Europe's 2003 heat wave - about 15,000 in France alone - Roaf asked, what with 2007 going to the hottest year ever, how Israel was preparing to cope with the expected high number of consecutive hot days.