Saturday April 22 was international Earth Day in Israel and in more than 193 countries around the world. First celebrated in 1970, Earth Day is an opportunity to raise environmental awareness worldwide.
Israel eager to be up to par with the rest of the world, celebrates Earth Day with concerts and environmental awareness activity, including awards for environmental stewardship. Israel also observed ‘Earth Hour’ on March 25, a project initiated by WWF in 2007. On ‘EarthHour’ cities turn off their lights for one hour. In Israel the cities Tel Aviv to Yavne and Yeruham turned off their lights.
It is important to celebrate the Earth in Israel – even for just one day. To raise awareness about destruction and about loss of bio-diversity that human activity is causing on ecological systems that support life on the planet. In addition, to also point out how little is actually being done despite the Israeli government and Israeli cities introducing ‘greener’ policies in smaller or bigger scales.
Earth Day is also a soft wake-up call for the unaware – or indifferent - citizen.
Looking through the daily paper, we learn about international news, conflicts, elections abroad, corruption cases at home and abroad, arts, design, food, sports, and travel. Lots of travel.
The same is also manifested in the streets. One sees very little environmental awareness, and if there are any signs, they get lost in the sea of advertisement and consumption. Streets and highways are full of traffic jams with cars carrying one driver and no additional passengers. Recycling points of paper and plastics are half-full, while garbage bins are overflowing with organic waste, mixed with paper and carton boxes, egg crates, empty plastic bottles, and one-use plastic plates – all of which could be recycled. Air-conditioned shops, offices and homes have windows and doors wide open wasting energy and causing unnecessary pollution. Parked cars idle – unless they are hybrid and their engine turns off automatically – despite the pollution they contribute, the fuel they waste and the damage they cause to the engine. Idling, is prohibited by law in some developed and concerned countries, but not in Israel.
These are disturbing indications, but what really seems to make a considerable impact is air travel. With an annual increase of 11% in air travelers in Israel and with new routes opening daily – thanks to the ‘Open Skies’ agreement with the EU – Israelis have the opportunity to travel where they like, when they like at bargain prices. Did the government consider the environmental impact of increased air travel? Probably not. Airplanes are heavy polluters. They contribute about 5% to global warming greenhouse gases. Carbon offsetting of a trip is the way that many people choose to go, but although it supports projects for environmental protection, it does not reduce the actual pollution and damage caused by airplanes.
On the occasion of Earth Day, it is interesting to look at international traveling from a different angle. While countries like Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran are connected by train, Israel is an island with only one exit: from the sky. It may sound very poetic, but the fact is that being in strained relations with its neighbors – even before the war in Syria started - Israel can not travel to and from the Middle East by train – as was the case until the British Mandate. Train pollution is only a fraction of air travelling. For example, traveling from London to Paris by plane, the trip contributes about 200 Kg/CO2 per passenger. The same trip by train contributes only about 20. Air travel may seem to save time, but as airports are located far from city centers, and with additional security checks, the actual trip takes much longer. Trains leave from city centers and arrive to city centers, saving time and money and protect the planet.
The only way that the average Israeli – or environmentally aware traveler – could have the option to enjoy travelling without killing life on Earth, would be to develop international train travelling. Through regional agreements similar to ‘Open Skies’. Israel could connect to existing and create new networks of fast trains. Israelis could travel to Istanbul, Turkey in only a few hours – with a fraction of carbon emissions and with an amazing experience of seeing foreign sceneries and cities and meeting other cultures and religions along the way.
Which boils down to the fact that there is no real celebration of Earth Day in the Middle East until there is peace and cooperation in the region.