Will Israel be able to tackle climate change?

ENVIRONMENTAL AFFAIRS: Israel is sending a massive delegation to next week’s COP26 in Glasgow and the government has unveiled a 100-action item plan to combat climate change. Will it be enough?

POLICE OFFICERS patrol on a boat at the River Clyde, opposite the Scottish Event Campus, where the COP26 will take place, in Glasgow, next week. (photo credit: RUSSELL CHEYNE/REUTERS)
POLICE OFFICERS patrol on a boat at the River Clyde, opposite the Scottish Event Campus, where the COP26 will take place, in Glasgow, next week.

NEW YORK – During the commemorations last month marking the one-year anniversary of the signings of the Abraham Accords, a question was posed to Ambassador to the United Nations and United States Gilad Erdan. Sectors like trade, tourism and medicine have been front and center in agreements reached between Israel and its new Arab partners. What is the next big field ripe for regional cooperation?

Erdan put forth a thought-provoking answer. It’s climate change, he said.

Gideon Bachar, Foreign Ministry special envoy to the UN for climate change and sustainability, agrees wholeheartedly.

“I think that climate change is and should be the cornerstone of regional cooperation in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.

“Our region is considered to be a climate hot spot. It means that it is warming up one-and-a-half times quicker than the world average. In the Gulf region, it’s already two degrees more than what was before the Industrial Revolution. So, things are taking a turn toward the worst in the Middle East in terms of climate change,” he said this month, ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, next week.

 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)

Israel is paying great attention to the high-profile COP26, as it is known. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is set to lead a 140-person Israeli delegation to Glasgow.

And the flurry of climate change activity coming out of Jerusalem ahead of the conference has been dizzying.

On Sunday, the government announced at its weekly cabinet meeting a plan to put forward 100 action items for coping with the climate crisis, four of which were passed that day: a resolution on an energy-streamlining program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with NIS 725 million to support industry, commerce and local government; a resolution on clean, low-carbon transportation; a resolution to accelerate building infrastructure with a focus on removing obstacles to renewable energy; and a resolution to encourage technological innovation to fight climate change.

The climate-tech plan, led by Bennett, Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg and Energy Minister Karin Elharrar, is meant to boost the development of technologies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for and adapt to climate change. The technologies will be in the areas of climate, energy, food, agriculture – including desert agriculture – water and more.

DESPITE THE broad-reaching plan, some staunch environmentalists were largely unimpressed with the overall direction that the government is taking.

There was no mention by Bennett of the government’s pending climate law, which was drafted back in April. Also missing, according to them, were plans for a carbon tax, a consideration of the indirect costs of fossil fuels and a mechanism that would see the government work with financial regulators to take into account the implications on climate change before investments are made in government projects. Most components of the national plan that were announced, such as support to accelerate climate tech development, have no accompanying budget.

“The bottom line is that Israel is not doing enough,” said Alon Tal, a Coalition MK for Blue and White and a leading Israeli environmental activist and academic.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in the last four months, relative to the commitments of previous governments. We have a very competent environmental minister and energy minister, and there are naturally turf battles between them, but we are counting on them both to work together. Their frictions are getting in the way of the new climate law,” he added.

“We want to see a more broad-based carbon tax law to cover emissions. We want free public transportation for every Israeli, and to create massive electric bus lines. Norway has 85%-90% electric vehicles. Israel is at 5%,” said Tal.

However, Environmental Protection Ministry Director-General Galit Cohen believes that the government plan to cope with climate change signifies a fundamental change in the way Israel is dealing with the crisis.

“I think that the events of this last summer have made us realize in Israel and in the rest of the world that climate change is here, and we cannot wait for the next generation to deal with it,” she said. “If we want to reduce its effects, we must act now. I believe that the new government understands this.”

Environmentalists believe Israel set the bar low to begin with when its came to its commitments, and its new plan doesn’t make up any ground, and in some cases, cedes it. Tal says that arguments that Israel is too small a country to have an impact one way or another on climate is indefensible.

“It’s on the same level as cheating on your taxes and saying it’s such a small amount compared to the overall money collected. It’s morally pernicious,” said Tal.

“The Paris Accords in 2015 was the first time Israel stepped up and made quantifiable commitments, but those commitments were minimal. Rather than moving to reduce emissions, we allowed it to increase by camouflaging it by per capita, meaning that even as you reduce your emissions, it isn’t accounting for Israel’s population increase. Worse than that, by 2020, we were supposed to have 10% of our electricity generated from renewable sources instead of fossil fuels. We’re still only at 6%. We’re behind in nearly every relevant category” he said.

That puts Israel in line with its neighbors.

Among the world leaders who are expected to be in Scotland are US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The Israeli delegation will go to COP26 in Glasgow ready to present its plan and to talk about innovation and technology, Cohen said.

“Israel is a small country, but it can bring many technological solutions to the world,” she said.

At the summit, Israel will likely join some new pledges together with other countries to reach goals to reduce climate change in the coming years, Cohen said.

“I do not know which targets Israel will agree to,” she said.

“The prime minister already said that our current plan and its targets might not be ambitious enough,” Cohen said.

According to Bachar, the countries in the Middle East, including Israel, are “starting almost from scratch in the Middle East, and this is what makes it even more problematic.

“But climate change can be also an opportunity for regional cooperation, an opportunity for prosperity, an opportunity to create more ties with different neighbors here in the region. So, we have to look at the climate change in the Middle East in both ways: As a threat, but also as a source of opportunities. We believe that there is not even one single country in the region that can withstand the effects of climate change alone,” he said.

ISRAEL, IN concert with a number of Gulf states and allies in the Eastern Mediterranean, has contributed to the development of a regional cooperation plan. According to Bachar, the plan is anchored by five areas of cooperation: water, agriculture, renewable energies, reforestation/nature-based solutions and food security and alternative proteins.

Water scarcity in the Middle East is the highest in the world, with the amount of water per capita set to be sliced to half in the next 30 years because of population growth, climate change and desertification.

Israel is a global innovator in drip irrigation, a low-pressure, low volume system designed to conserve soil nutrients and to minimize or prevent waste. In Israel, water loss is only around 3% in urban water systems, while some neighbors suffer losses of 40%-50%. Bachar says this is precisely the type of area where Israel can bring solutions to its neighbors.

“I can tell you that our policy is a policy of sharing know-how, sharing information, sharing technological developments, and climate innovation can be Israel’s best, most important contribution to the climate crisis worldwide,” he said.

President Isaac Herzog announced this month that he would convene a new Israeli Climate Forum several times a year, bringing together government, the Knesset, academics, local authorities and industrial representatives.

One of the major obstacles to regional cooperation is the relative lack of stability in the region. Ironically and tragically, the brutal Syrian civil war was brought on, in part, due to years of drought, which continues to pose major complications there and in Iraq. Additionally, the region imports most of its food. That makes it vulnerable to supply chains problems and hazards.

The collapse of central governments elsewhere in places like Yemen and the divergent political interests among regional states serve as additional barriers to cooperation on climate issues.

“The emphasis should be placed on true regional cooperation, because we cannot afford to leave populations or countries behind. Building resilience in the Middle East should be inclusive. If we leave people behind, populations behind, which were not resilient or did not take measures to adapt to climate change, it will affect all of us,” warned Bachar.

In addition to COP26, the UN also recently announced the launch of the first-ever Middle East and North Africa Climate Week, which will take place from February 28 to March 3, 2022, in the United Arab Emirates. While Israel generally employs a healthy dose of skepticism with regards to UN efforts, Bachar says it is the right institution to lead such initiatives at this time.

“The Paris Agreement [an international treaty on climate change adopted in 2015] was done in the framework of the UN. The United Nations climate change convention is within the UN, as well as the Convention to Combat Desertification, and others. So, the UN is the most important mechanism today that brings together states and different stakeholders. It’s not only countries, but the private sector, academia, media and more,” said Bachar.

“And I think that one of the phenomena of the identity of the world is the shift towards a global agenda and global issues. Corona is a manifestation of that. You can’t really handle the coronavirus in your own country. We are part of the global system, but it’s not only the corona and other diseases. It’s climate change, it’s desertification, it’s destructive technology and many more others.

“So, the world really is moving into a sphere of more cooperation and agreements and understandings.”

Rossella Tercatin and Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.