COP27 climate circus: Israel is not doing enough - opinion

Observations of an Israeli at the Sharm el-Sheikh COP27 climate summit.

  VIEW of a COP27 sign on the road leading to the conference area in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. (photo credit: Sayed Sheasha/Reuters)
VIEW of a COP27 sign on the road leading to the conference area in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
(photo credit: Sayed Sheasha/Reuters)

Were I Charles Dickens, I might say that for anyone concerned about the climatic future of our planet, the recent United Nations climate conference represented “the best of times” and the “worst of times.”

The Sharm el-Sheikh “COP27” convention marked the twenty-seventh global climate gathering since 1992.  It was exactly thirty years ago when most nations of the world signed onto an amorphous treaty that required them to start thinking about a curious, poorly understood phenomenon: the earth, it seemed, was getting warmer.   

I have attended other UN environmental conventions in the past and watched as incipient indications of global warming became unequivocal, and then alarming. As a member of Israel’s government delegation for part of the Sharm climate conference, last week I had the opportunity to once again catch a glimpse of global politics at play. It left me with decidedly disconcerted feelings about what lies ahead for planet Earth.

On the one hand, COP27 was a veritable climate festival. In the expansive exhibition halls adjacent to the official plenary halls and meeting rooms, a convivial atmosphere prevailed. The bevy of visitors, hailing from every corner of the planet, clearly enjoyed rubbing shoulders with like-minded climate champions. 

On the other hand, the associated excitement almost seemed to make participants forget that the Sharm conference was convened by the UN because after twenty-seven years, humans continue to destroy the only planet we will ever know. Notwithstanding the prolix verbiage in the final COP27 resolutions, little was done to change this.

 THE WRITER attends the Sharm el-Sheikh COP27 (credit: SHIMRI NEGBI) THE WRITER attends the Sharm el-Sheikh COP27 (credit: SHIMRI NEGBI)

Due to the generosity of the Israeli delegation’s leadership, I was privileged to attend a few of the pre-negotiation coordination sessions with Israel’s UN partner countries. 

In UN forums, Israel confers as a united faction with some very serious players, including the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Iceland, Ukraine and Norway. This gave me a glimpse of what we were up against, as countries from the developing world dug in their heels, opted for adversarial dynamics towards the developed countries and rejected proposals to expedite more ambitious reduction targets for global emissions. Rather, the global south remained fixated on demanding compensation for historic “Loss and Damages,” caused by wealthy, developed countries’ historic emissions to the atmosphere. In the end, a fund to that end was established at COP27. But its financing is not clearly mandated, so for now it appears to be largely a symbolic victory.

Israel, a climate change hotspot

As Israel has emerged as a “climate hotspot.” where the adverse effects of the climate crisis are appearing earlier and more dramatically than in other parts of the planet we too are starting to witness “loss and damages”:  If average global temperatures have increased by almost a degree since 1950, the Israel Meteorological Service reports that during that period, local temperatures increased on average by more than 1.5 degrees C. 

Sea-level rise constitutes a similar story: The global average in the oceans increased by roughly 3 mm. during past decades; Israel’s Mediterranean coast shows an average rise of 10 mm. In theory, we too could choose to be indignant about paying the price for past pollution and Western nations’ prosperity. Mercifully, Israel’s position is pragmatic: Let’s focus on what lies ahead and how to ameliorate it.

To me, the relative complacency of the developing countries towards mitigating greenhouse gases at COP27 remains mystifying.  Any loss and damages due to climate change that has taken place heretofore, will be a “Sesame Street picnic” when compared to the fury that a three degree temperature rise will generate in a half a century if people around the world don’t start cutting back on emissions today.  

After failing to move the international community toward reducing our collective carbon footprint, ultimately the best that the developed countries could do was to prevent a retreat from previously agreed climate objectives – even as the scientific consensus is that this constitutes “too little, too late.” One could not help but wonder whether the world’s oil companies weren’t delighted at the ‘north-south” bickering and developing countries’ decision not to support serious greenhouse gas cutbacks. As the UN conventions are typically chaired by a representative of the host country, might the tacit support of the Egyptian COP27 president for climate inaction reflect undue Saudi Arabian influence over the Sharm agenda and decisions?

In retrospect, bouncing back between the dour and deadlocked formal COP27 deliberations and the dozens of happy pavilions with their promising climate initiatives was somewhat surreal. One could get the bends moving up from the low spirited, the sense of resignation that was the subtext at many of the official talks, to the high spirited, technological optimism and business opportunities in the climate pavilions. 

As I am starting to write a new book about public policy and climate tech promotion. There were indeed a dizzying number of protagonists wandering the convention center who were only too happy to share fresh insights and ideas. 

Hundreds of venues were set up where people could come in and chat with friendly experts or sales reps in order to learn about every conceivable aspect of the climate crisis: financing adaptation strategies; climate-driven insurance policies; developments in the solar panel and off-shore wind turbines; low-energy processes for cement production; the potential role of women in addressing the climate crisis; the role of indigenous people; the role of technology. There was an endless array of suggestions about how to make the world a safer, more sustainable place. 

If there were moments when climate diplomacy seemed to reach an all-time low, at COP27 Israel’s stature as a player in the global climate community reached an all- time highs. Seasoned Israeli diplomat, Ambassador Gideon Bechar, the head of the delegation has emerged as an eloquent, competent voice about all things sustainable. His calm presence was felt in the meetings of the parties. And for the first time, our country cobbled together the funds for an Israeli pavilion at a COP.

Thanks to the inspired work of the indefatigable Ayelet Rozen and her talented team at Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, the pavilion was humming from the very start. Symbolically, it was located across the corridor from the Americana and the Indian exhibitions:  Israel was finally playing with the “big boys”. The pavilion’s small lecture hall, slick displays and free coffee bar offered a “home base” from which Israelis were happy to operate.

A pantheon of Israeli sustainability mavens filled the pavilion’s stage with some forty, fascinating side events, that catalyzed discussions about everything climatic: from drought resistant agricultural genetics and space-based climate technologies to climate mitigation strategies.  The mayors of Eilat and neighboring Eilot region showed up to showcase their impressive 100% transition to solar electricity. Israel highlighted a motley and impressive collection of experts.

The speakers were just a small sample of the hundreds of Israeli participants, who flew down to the Sinai to participate in COP27. 

Official statistics reported 800 Israeli registrants, making it the second largest delegation attending the 46,000 person gathering.

Top Israeli entrepreneurs, advocates, rabbis, academics and officials were delighted to enjoy the warm Egyptian welcome and be proud of the country’s potential contribution to the planet’s efforts. A joint delegation, comprised of campus leaders from Hazon’s Jewish Youth Climate Movement and the Jewish Agency’s youth village in Nitzana, showed that the climate crisis was an issue that could unite a new generation from Israeli and Diaspora,

Israel’s empty-handed delegation

Perhaps attending Israelis should have been a little less self-satisfied with their country’s climate performance. The sad fact is that the government of Israel essentially came to the UN’s Sharm conference “empty-handed.” Despite former  prime minister Naftali Bennett’s grand promise a year ago in his Glasgow COP26 speech to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, precious little progress has taken place. It was symbolic that only weeks earlier, Attorney-General, Gali Baharav-Miara prohibited Israel’s interim government during the election from ratifying Bennett’s declaration and upgrading it into a binding cabinet decision.

For over a year, a proposed Israeli climate law stalled due to inter-ministerial squabbling. Ultimately, the very minimalist, compromise bill was never passed by the Knesset, even as such legislation appeared in the coalition’s consensus platform. The government’s interim 2030 target for greenhouse reduction of 27% – extremely low by international standards – still appears elusive.

Most recent data suggest that notwithstanding Israel’s significant reduction in coal usage at power plants, overall emissions are not really dropping. Per capita, average carbon footprint among Israelis has indeed contracted. But then again, the population is growing very quickly.  Mitigation policy interventions simply cannot keep up.

Israel’s solar energy eclipsed

The litany of disappointment among Israeli climate advocates is long:  Solar energy is one example; today it provides but 8.5% of local electricity.  Israel has committed to reaching 30% renewable energy within eight years. But this target appears positively anemic when one considers that 48.5% of German electricity already comes from renewables, while Denmark long since shattered the 50% mark.

The explanations for Israel’s poor climate performance are many: excessive reliance on solar photovoltaics which are limited by intermittent sunshine; lack of physical space for large plants and energy storage; inadequate capacity of the local electricity grid; Israel’s status as an energy island, without the infrastructure to import electricity in meaningful quantities from neighbors; a sluggish bureaucracy that slows rooftop solar installations.  And that’s just half of the obstacles.

Unfortunately, the planet desperately needs results – not excuses, now. There is concern that a “point of no return” will be passed when climate cacophony spins out of control.

Over a decade ago I wrote an article with Dr. Lucy Michaels about “Israeli exceptionalism” – and a sense of entitlement that informs Israeli government agencies who believe that our country somehow deserves special treatment. 

What was quite clear at the Sharm conference is that no country is having an easy time breaking their fossil fuel addiction.  The long, cold winter awaiting Europe offers evidence about the perils of withdrawal.  It is time for Israel to also “suck it up” and get to work. The world expects more of us. Otherwise, it will not be long before our politicians’ thirty-year climactic proclivity for a “path of least resistance” will provoke economic sanctions and political consequences. 

The original strategy embraced by the UN Climate Convention can be characterized as “Top-Down.” The international community thought it could set standards that would soon disseminate along a command chain with member states and their internal jurisdictions complying with the rules. After twenty years of pushback and fairly consistent failure, a new “Bottom Up” approach was adopted: Every country now gets to choose how they are going to go about mitigating greenhouse gases, while committing to steadily improving their performance through regularly-updated action plans (NDCs).

Seven years later, the new system appears to be producing better results. But the UN’s global program to address the climate crisis is ultimately based on trust. Even though 50% of the global emissions come from China, the US and India – everyone, including Israel, still has to do their part.  Otherwise, how can we expect other nations to reduce their carbon footprints?  

Like so many of the 192 countries who sent delegations to COP27, Israel is not yet meeting its international responsibility to offer future generations a modicum of climatic stability. But we could.

The writer is a professor of public policy at Tel Aviv University and until last week, the chair of the Knesset Subcommittee for Environment, Climate and Health.