Cut and dry

Israel's contribution to the problem of global warming is marginal - but so far, its contribution to the solution is marginal, too.

You don't want to die. Not in a catastrophic flood caused by the melting of the polar ice caps. Not in a monstrous hurricane spawned by unnatural weather patterns. Not of thirst, after all your local water sources have dried up in a relentless series of heat waves. You don't want to suffer the fate promised to you in An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's over-the-top, Oscar-winning movie about the impending doom of global warming. So, you listen to Avi Harel, CEO of Vortex Ecological Technologies, and take solace in the company's solution, which makes pollution and global warming nothing more than a tempest in a teacup. With the company's Advanced Vortex Chamber, industrial emissions stream into a cone-shaped device that accelerates the flow of gas through a spiral, creating a kind of cyclone. Into that maelstrom, a cleansing liquid is sprayed. Droplets of this liquid attach to hazardous particles that a factory would normally belch into the air we breathe. In the chamber, however, they are shuffled into a separate container where they are rendered into either an easily treatable powder or a liquid fertilizer. Harel claims the company's products can neutralize 99 percent of the poisonous sulfurous gas particles emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, and that they'll also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10%-15%. "That's enough," he says, "to make a difference." Indeed, while removing pollutants is boon enough, the Advanced Vortex Chamber's reduction of carbon bioxide is much more significant when it comes to fighting global warming. Carbon bioxide is by far the biggest factor in creating the greenhouse effect that is, almost all scientists now agree, behind the record temperatures being felt around the world. And it is produced mostly by factories and power stations - precisely Vortex's target customers. There's just one snag: Vortex currently has systems that can handle only smaller factories and power stations. It would take a sizable contract with a large facility - like the oil refineries in Haifa or the Hadera power station, both of which are currently in negotiations with Vortex - for the young company to be able to produce a system on a larger scale. Until that happens, Vortex can only go so far. Although the company has contracts with some Scandinavian companies, and it is in talks with firms in the US, "Israel is not much of a market for us yet," Harel admits. In a sense, then, Vortex is representative of Israel's efforts at confronting global warming. There is plenty of potential here, but it is not being realized. The country is merely taking baby steps toward progress. AS IT IS, Israelis' environmental record is a poor one, from picnickers littering in parks to industrial factories dumping toxic chemicals into rivers and streams. More than these, though, government inaction is the main reason for pessimism that the country will turn its act around to handle a problem as large as global warming. "The government isn't doing much at all about the issue, really. There just isn't enough shock yet. No one's trying to actually make things better," complains Dr. Eli Galanti, fellow and research coordinator at Tel Aviv University's Porter School of Environmental Studies. Just because Israel contributes very little to the problem of global warming - the scale of our industry and of our transportation system simply pales in comparison to nations like the US and China - doesn't mean that we should contribute little to its solution, Galanti says. After all, we'll feel the effects just the same. That could mean more forest and bush fires, more invasive species or pests, a delayed growing season or any of several other ill effects of global warming. "We will have hotter and slightly longer heat waves in the summers," Galanti says. "That may seem trivial, since it's already pretty hot here, but it's not trivial at all. A major implication is a drop in the amount of rainfall we get, since even a minor change could mean trouble for our drinking water supply." The water supply is already precariously low, thanks to skyrocketing demands on our modest resources from a burgeoning population and from an agricultural industry that farms crops with high water needs. Several answers to these problems are already here. In addition to techniques of drip irrigation that Israel has mastered, universities and private firms are developing methods of raising crops that grow well in our climate with much less water. Ending water subsidies for farmers producing water-intensive crops could bring those methods into wider use. Such a step, however, is not on the government's agenda. Neither is it clear when or even if the government plans to build desalination plants that would increase the amount of water available, despite the fact that Israel boasts the world's largest seawater reverse osmosis desalination plant, in Ashkelon. Another step, installing water saving devices throughout the country, remains just an idea. "If every household were fitted with water saving devices - at a cost of NIS 185 million - we could save NIS 375 million in a year. So, in six months, that project would pay for itself. Yet the government won't make that investment," bemoans Noga Levtzion-Nadan, an environmental economist. "The government thinks so short-term... but for environmental issues, you can't just think short-term. The problems are all long-term," she says. BACK TO carbon dioxide: The government is choosing to continue to produce more of it, when clean alternatives are available. Over the objections of the Environmental Protection Ministry, the National Infrastructure Ministry plans to push through construction of a third coal-burning power plant in Ashkelon to meet the ever increasing electricity demands of the country. Meanwhile, plans for a non-polluting solar power station in the Negev continue to drag on fruitlessly, thanks to administrative delays. Although National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer says the government is committed to its 2006 decision to produce up to 10% of the country's electricity through renewable energy in 10 years, the plans to construct another coal-burning power plant are an indication that there is little action behind those words. "[The decision] is not moving and not being implemented in the field because this plan has not been placed very high on the national agenda," Dr. Yishayahu Bar-Or, the Environmental Protection Ministry's chief scientist, told The Jerusalem Post recently. "Right now the government is dragging its feet on this." "It's bizarre that Israel hasn't invested heavily in alternate fuels and energies," says Tel Aviv University's Galanti. It's not only bizarre but economically misguided, says Levtzion-Nadan, who has carried out extensive research on the government's budgetary commitment to environmental policy. "If 10% of our energy consumption came from renewable energy sources, over 20 years we would save NIS 9 billion. Yet in the budget, Israel invests only NIS 2.1 million per year in renewable energy. It's a joke." What's more, there are hidden costs to the ostensibly cheaper fossil fuels. "We pay about NIS 4.3b. per year - in health costs, lost labor costs, lost tax revenues, etc. - because of our complete reliance on fossil fuels, and the health hazards they cause," says Levtzion-Nadan. "We don't see that cost at the gas pump, or in our electric bill, so we think that those things are cheap. But the cost is there. It adds up and has an effect on the economy. We all pay the price for that way of life." FORTUNATELY, there are also positive developments, although they are small. The government has ordered that oil-burning power stations change over to natural gas, for example. Burning natural gas still contributes to the greenhouse effect, but to a significantly lesser extent, and it pollutes much less as well. The Finance Ministry announced last month that it would exempt a new electric scooter from purchase tax, to make the clean-running vehicle more attractive. Tax on the two hybrid cars available here, the Toyota Prius and a hybrid model of the Honda Civic, is already a fraction of the tax on other cars. Diesel emissions standards, unchanged for 30 years, have been updated so that older, polluting models will be taken out of use. "The things that we have accomplished, just in the transportation field and just in the past year and a half, have been significant," says Shuly Nezer, head of the Environmental Protection Ministry's air quality department. "And there's hope that we can make even more changes." Nezer notes that there is now a "green taxation committee" in the Finance Ministry, working together with the Environmental Protection and Transportation ministries to classify vehicles according to their emissions. It is conceivable, she says, that higher efficiency vehicles, such as small cars, modern diesels and scooters and motorcycles, could receive tax breaks in the very near future. "We are also working to make Israel more efficient in its energy usage," Nezer adds. "We have put out a call to local councils to use more efficient lighting on roads, for example. As we explain, these steps are not just good for the environment, they are more economical in the long term." While government efforts to fight environmental damage began in earnest a decade ago, they are finally bearing fruit now, thanks in part to a larger public awareness of the problem and pressure from an increasing number of environmental groups. As Nezer says, Israel has a long way to go - but it has also come a long way, too. Despite being classified as a developing country in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the country's greenhouse gas emissions per capita are on par with levels in superstrict Western Europe. "We are not China and India," Nezer says, referring to two of the largest polluter states. "It's true that we could do much more. But things are beginning to change, they really are. What you see here today is much more advanced than it was five years ago. I am very optimistic." UNTIL NOW, economics has been used as an excuse for inaction on pro-environmental projects. Ultimately, though, financial concerns may end up as just the thing that pushes Israel to act. As noted above, several policy changes would provide financial savings over time, in addition to their positive environmental impact. At some point soon, the benefits of change will become too evident to ignore - and they may serve officials who care less about the environment than they do about their ability to fund some other project with the savings of an environmental one. Already, the private sector is showing an interest in environmental issues. What more and more people are discovering, says Levtzion-Nadan, is that "companies that manage their environmental obligations are often well managed in general. If they have a sound, coherent strategy for dealing with environmental issues, they usually have sound, coherent strategies for other areas of operations as well. So it's a very good way to evaluate companies, from an investment standpoint. "In fact, I do that a lot for investors. Investors need to have a complete view of a company; they need to know everything about the company. They are now starting to realize that if a company pollutes today, it's going to be looking at a fine, or at the costs of a clean-up, or at a major lawsuit." So maybe Avi Harel will soon be getting more calls at Vortex's headquarters in Haifa. "Not only can we help the environment," he says, "we can help companies save money." And that, as he already mentioned, is enough to make a difference.