COP26: Climate Conference is Bennett's chance to be a statesman - analysis

Will Prime Minister Naftali Bennett come back from Glasgow as a statesman, having elevated Israel on the world stage?

 Israel’s prime minister Naftali Bennett addresses the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, at the UN headquarters in New York, US, September 27, 2021 (photo credit: JOHN MINCHILLO /POOL VIA REUTERS)
Israel’s prime minister Naftali Bennett addresses the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, at the UN headquarters in New York, US, September 27, 2021
(photo credit: JOHN MINCHILLO /POOL VIA REUTERS)

The Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow this week will be Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s first international summit, where he will rub elbows – figuratively and literally, thanks to COVID-19 – with leaders from around the world.

The UN General Assembly is usually a chance to do that. But this year, because of Sukkot, by the time Bennett arrived in New York, most of the leaders had left; plus, many video-conferenced in because of the pandemic.

This has given COP26 added significance and will be a test for Bennett. Will he come back as a statesman, having elevated Israel on the world stage?

Bennett is starting the test at a disadvantage. He can’t compete with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s renown, which helped let Israel punch above its weight at events like this, even if there are some leaders who want to encourage and support the post-Bibi government.

But climate change is one of the dominant issues on the global agenda, as witnessed by leaders from all over the world planning to gather in Glasgow, and there is plenty Bennett can do to bring advantages to Israel.

 People take part in a Climate March in Brussels, Belgium, ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, October 10, 2021.  (credit:  REUTERS/YVES HERMAN/FILE PHOTO) People take part in a Climate March in Brussels, Belgium, ahead of the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, October 10, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN/FILE PHOTO)

The National Security Council, which only recently took on climate change as part of its portfolio, set four main goals for Israel: 1) to prepare as best as possible for emergencies, such as wildfires, snowstorms, etc.; 2) to leverage Israel’s assets, such as innovation in areas related to climate; 3) to advance regional cooperation; 4) to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

These are important goals for Israel’s future domestically, but each of these has a diplomatic element, as well.

Bennett will likely want to emphasize Israeli innovation in providing solutions for the problems caused by climate change, whether it is meat alternatives, desalination, desert agriculture, solar energy or others, and use them to build joint efforts with other countries at the conference.

The UK, the conference’s host country, is already enthusiastically looking to Israeli technology in its “race to zero” carbon emissions, and it is introducing British industry to Israeli climate-tech companies through the Clean Growth Department of its UK-Israel Tech Hub in Tel Aviv.

But Israel lags well behind many developed countries in taking steps to mitigate climate change. The State Comptroller’s Report this week said the government has failed to meet its emissions targets. Israel’s emissions rose 12% since 2005, while the EU reduced its by 21% in the same period. Israel has the 10th-highest emissions rate in the OECD, reaching that of much larger countries.

Allies have quietly criticized Israel for not having a broad, long-term strategy on climate. For example, Israel has not set a target date for zero emissions. And while Israel is phasing out coal due to its natural-gas resources, and gas is cleaner than coal, it is not a renewable energy source.

The UK also would like to see Israel sign on to forest and ocean preservation initiatives, among other steps, adopt the use of zero-emission vehicles for public transportation and more.

Beyond that, the awareness of climate change among the public is very low compared with the Western world in general, and the government has done little to manage people’s expectations on this critical issue.

The same department in the UK Embassy bringing Israeli clean-tech to Britain also brought sustainability experts from the UK to meet the heads of some of Israel’s biggest companies and encourage movement in the private sector toward greener industry.

It is true that Israel’s footprint – carbon and otherwise – is much, much smaller than players such as India and China, which are facing criticism for not doing enough to mitigate their emissions.

But being a team player on climate will go a long way with the countries that Israel sees as like-minded. In that respect, the cabinet’s decision this week to take 100 different steps toward mitigating and adapting to climate change is a positive move.

An announcement of ambitious goals would help Bennett to portray himself as a statesman when it comes to one of the biggest global issues. Sticking to those goals, which is harder to do, will benefit Israelis in the long term.