Interview: Gilad Erdan's green revolution

Environment Gilad Erdan

Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan is one of the young guard of the ruling Likud party. Staunchly right-wing in his political views, he has gained the prime minister's ear in his attempts to chivvy along an often reluctant government to adopt 21st-century environmental policies. After only 10 months on the job, he is already talking about laying the groundwork for a shakeup of governmental authority and a waste disposal revolution that would see landfill use drop by 50 percent in favor of recycling and composting. A week before major UN-sponsored climate change negotiations kick off in Copenhagen, The Jerusalem Post sat down for a one-on-one interview with Erdan, in which he touched upon Israel's unique challenges regarding global warming, the difficulties of effecting modern environmental policy in Israel, and his vision of revolutionizing waste treatment. As it stands now, Israel will most likely not have to take on the binding commitments to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that the developed countries are expected to adopt as a result of the Copenhagen negotiations. Israel's status will be considered that of a developing nation, which will require a plan to reduce emissions, but few formal targets, according to current Israeli assessments. WHILE ISRAEL could easily rest on its laurels and convincingly argue that its contribution to global emissions is negligible, Erdan is convinced that would be a grave mistake. He has already declared emissions reductions to be one of the top five goals of the ministry. "A sustainable, economical, low-carbon economy is a profitable one, so we should be moving toward that goal anyway, even without a commitment [under the successor to the Kyoto Protocol that will be worked out in Copenhagen]," he told the Post this week in his office at the ministry. "Even among Annex I [developed countries], there are different capabilities to reduce emissions. So, too, among developing nations. It would be very bad for our international image if we did not take on some commitment even if not expressly required to," he argued. In other words, Israel would not look good if its emissions policy matched that of the most backward Third World countries while its economy matched that of European developed countries. While Israel's overall contribution of greenhouse gases is negligible, the country's rate of CO2 tons per person is comparable to that of Western European countries. Reducing emissions has some unique challenges in Israel, Erdan noted. "There is no other Western economy in the world that is facing a positive population growth rate and a growing economy, and a near total lack of natural energy sources," he said. Part of reducing emissions is turning to alternative energy sources that could be domestically produced, thus contributing to what's called energy security - the attainment of a constant energy source from either domestic or friendly foreign sources. Erdan recently commissioned McKinsey & Co. to analyze Israel's emissions reduction capability. The company concluded that Israel could not reverse emissions growth entirely, but could eliminate two thirds of that growth. One of its main suggestions was producing 25% of electricity from alternative energy by 2030. Right now, the government has committed to producing 10% by 2020. "I commissioned McKinsey, which costs 10 times what any Israeli company does, because they speak the same language as the UN. McKinsey has done this analysis for countries all over the world," and if we want to be serious about becoming a part of the international world on this issue, then we needed them too, he said. Reducing emissions also contributes to better air quality - another of Erdan's top five goals. "All of the extra manpower I managed to get so far has gone toward preparing to implement the Clean Air Act [which goes into effect on January 1, 2011]. I hold a meeting every three to four weeks to ensure everything is still on track. There are 18-20 regulations that need to be passed, new inspectors trained, and Best Available Technology (BAT) alternatives with factories to be worked out [before the Act goes into effect]," he explained. OVER AND above the five specific goals of the ministry - waste disposal, air pollution, emissions reduction, enforcement and education - there is still a lingering issue of the ministry's place in the policymaking scheme. "The biggest problem is that the ministry was created 40 years after the founding of the state. The ministry does not have the authority to achieve what the public wants it to achieve," Erdan asserted. "The ministry was created to appease Roni Milo, who didn't get the ministry he wanted. Back then, it was cobbled together from lots of different places and given various responsibilities. However, none of those responsibilities match the environmental concerns of the 21st century," he contended. For example, he said, the fuel basket and energy policy are in the hands of the National Infrastructures Ministry, and public transportation is in the hands of the Transportation Ministry. Those two industries alone produce about three-quarters of air pollution and CO2 emissions. "Look at France: Jean-Louis Borloo, the Environment, Sustainable Development, Energy and Transport minister is the third-most powerful minister in the government behind President Nicolas Sarkozy and the prime minister," Erdan noted. While acknowledging the difficulty of creating such a position in Israel, Erdan has nevertheless forged ahead. He is working on creating a committee of experts to examine the issue and perhaps offer radical restructuring suggestions. But, Erdan admitted, "it's unlikely to be implemented in this cadenza." He is still trying to figure out which non-governmental experts to appoint to the committee, since "we don't want it to be stacked with ministry officials who have a preference for the status quo." REGARDING HIS fellow ministers, Erdan admitted that few of them placed environmental issues high up on their agendas. "There are one or two ministers, but the majority of them, unfortunately, do not understand the issues, and it is hard to get them to contribute," he lamented. "Without the prime minister's support, [the environment] wouldn't be on the agenda at all," he continued. "I have an open ear in the prime minister and in his office. The Prime Minister's Office is in constant dialogue with me. [For example], I convened a meeting of top financial officials including [Bank of Israel Governor] Prof. Stanley Fischer and PMO Economic Council Eugene Kandel along with the prime minister recently to discuss environmental issues." Erdan is eager to accomplish a revolution on the ground, as well. He is actively pushing for major changes in waste treatment. He wants to reduce the amount of garbage reaching landfills, which take up scarce land resources and contribute to global warming, by 50% by 2015. To do that, he and his ministry are working on introducing a first draft of a Packaging Law by January 2010. Such a law would make manufacturers and importers responsible for the entire lifetime of their product - including recycling the packaging it came in. Erdan would also like to introduce separate garbage cans for wet and dry waste in every household. The dry waste would be recycled into its various parts - glass, plastic, paper, etc. The wet waste would be taken away to organized compost sites. According to Erdan, there is great interest among the general public regarding these measures, but it would still be a long and difficult transition. That's why education is one of his top five priorities as well. "We will start with putting in the necessary infrastructure, then some pilot projects. But the only way to really embed the ideas is through education and PR campaigns. If we get it into the education system, then the kids and the youth will force their parents to comply," he declared. One of the ministry's weakest points has been enforcement. Many polluters go unpunished, and when cases do enter the legal arena, they drag on for years. Still fine-tuning the final details, Erdan plans to announce an expedited charging process. Instead of giving factories years on end to fix the problem, he wants to shorten the whole process - from failure to correct, to criminal investigation - to a year. These days, factories are often given at least six months to correct the violations, and then called to repeated hearings before criminal proceedings are launched. "The deterrent factor has been lost," according to Erdan. He plans to reveal more details of the changes in enforcement within a few weeks. READING BETWEEN the lines, what is at stake here can be boiled down to a single question: How does Israel perceive itself and want to be perceived in the world? Is Israel still a somewhat backward, developing country, with a commensurate environmental policy? Or is Israel setting its eye on pulling onto a par with the European countries - in GDP and economic strength? Erdan's message seems to be that that these days, economic success cannot be achieved without a complementary environmental policy. To join the OECD and be recognized among the likes of Spain and Belgium instead of India and China, Israel must develop not only a robust economy, but the environmental safeguards for it as well.