Israel Advances Environmental Bill To Mitigate Climate Change Damage
Country expected to see rise in heatwaves, fires, flash floods
Anyone living in Israel in recent decades has felt the scorching heat getting even hotter.
Summer heatwaves now last longer and electricity consumption records are broken every year.
The data support that sweaty feeling. And according to the Israel Meteorological Service, the average temperature in the country will rise by 4° Celsius (7.2° Fahrenheit) by the end of the current century, double the global forecast.
In the coming years, Israel is expected to experience more heatwaves, fires, flash floods, and other extreme weather conditions.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett approved a plan in October for Israel to combat climate change, before attending the 2021 UN Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow.
“The climate crisis is one of the major issues on the world agenda. It concerns the lives of all of us, and also the lives of our children and grandchildren. We are obligated to deal with it in Israel; it is at the core of our being,” he said.
Fast forward to last Sunday, when the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved Israel’s first Climate Bill. It is expected to be brought to a vote in the Knesset in the coming weeks.
“This is a historic moment,” Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg said in a statement given to The Media Line.
But there are questions as to whether the proposal is sufficient to tackle the complex, multi-faceted issue.
The draft law is supposed to put the energy, industry, agriculture, and transportation sectors under the same obligations working toward making Israel a carbon-neutral economy and fighting the climate crisis on a national level.
The government set a goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and drastically reducing them before that, cutting emissions by at least 27% by 2030.
“It is true there is a gap to close. I think we need to increase the goals to at least 40% in 2030 and I will continue to fight for this,” Zandberg said in her statement.
Unnamed finance ministry officials were quoted in the Israeli media as criticizing the bill for fear the government and large industries would be restricted in their activities.
Attorney Tammy Gannot Rosenstreich, deputy executive director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, said, “Even in its current format, the law completely changes the status of climate change in Israel by legislation and making it something that can be enforced, with concrete commitments. It symbolizes a new era for Israel.”
The draft legislation includes concrete milestones along the way, a compromise between the two ministries.
“I am surprised that any environmental expert could be satisfied,” said Member of Knesset Alon Tal, founder of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense and of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. “The law is inadequate and anemic relative to the standards that have emerged internationally. It is a product of a painful compromise.”
“It is obvious the law needs to be more ambitious,” said Gannot Rosenstreich.
The bill has no specific goals for the use of renewable energies. Israel appears to be going in the opposite direction of much of the developed world, increasing its dependency on natural gas and constantly stretching the limit on electricity, while still using coal as an energy source. Plans for the construction of a new power plant based on natural gas have been criticized by environmentalists.
Tal hopes to amend the bill, “to restore some of the vitality and integrity of the original draft.”
Despite the ambitious goal, Israel is still lagging behind most Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, in both goals and implementation.
“There is not enough understanding of the scope of the problem,” said Dr. Avner Gross, from the School of Sustainability and Climate Change at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba.
While Israel may perceive itself as a small country with little impact on the global environment, its geographical position makes it highly susceptible to the adverse effects of climate change.
Indeed, Israel’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 accounted for 0.16% of global CO2 emissions, according to the Global Carbon Project. However, in CO2 emissions per capita, Israel ranks higher than countries similar in size and population.
“We know how to create economic incentives and regulatory devices to reduce our carbon footprint dramatically,” Tal told The Media Line. “This climate law lacks vision and makes no mention of any economic instruments.”
He suggests a carbon tax on gas but also on beef.
The warning signs are already here.
Gross said, “Due to its geographical location, Israel is highly sensitive to climate change and could be much harder hit by the climate crisis than other countries. It has an obligation not to wait for others to take steps. This will be a national security threat to Israel that is no less a threat than the Iranian one.”
Zandberg said, “This is a plan to reduce emissions, but the plan for preparedness is no less important. It is important that Israel takes part in reducing global gas emissions but it is more important that it protects its citizens from the consequences of the climate crisis that are expected to hit harsher here than in other countries.
“This plan will guarantee Israel’s climate immunity in the next decades and reduce the risks that come with climate change in the country,” she said.
Israel’s arid climate is expected to worsen as the Sahara Desert in North Africa pushes its boundaries ever closer because of global warming.
“The main thing that needs to be done is to reach the understanding that this is an existential crisis and by treating it as one, Israel needs to allocate much more resources to deal with the problem,” said Gross.
“We are the first generation to recognize climate change and the last one that can do something to stop it,” and the window is closing, said Tal.
The consequences of desertification are grave.
According to Gross, if immediate action is not taken, Israel will have 20% to 30% less rainfall by the end of the century. Not only will the country be much hotter, but food supplies will also be reduced. A massive flow of refugees could take place from neighboring countries with soaring temperatures and limited access to water. As temperatures soar, it will be harder for people in the Middle East to survive. This will create new geo-political challenges in an already volatile region.
And Israel also faces rising sea levels that will make living in areas next to the sea increasingly difficult.
Assuming the Knesset approved the law, it will still take time to translate it into action. The road to a carbon-free economy is not short.
Under the legislation, a Ministerial Committee on Climate Affairs will be established and chaired by the prime minister. It is meant to coordinate the work of all ministries and ensure the bill is being implemented.
Israel, with its thriving high-tech innovation sector, has the potential to be a world leader in solutions for the myriad issues climate change brings with it.
“The discourse is starting to change,” said Gannot Rosenstreich. “We are seeing a beginning of understanding in statements, not so much in important actions. It all has to do with the gap between the short-term political considerations and the long-term investments needed to deal with the problem.”
The existence of the bill, regardless of its weak points, and the discourse around it, leave room for optimism, activists say.
“A few years ago, we couldn’t even imagine such a law in Israel,” said Gross. “The next decade will be the climate decade and we will face this challenge successfully because we know the solution, we have the vaccine. But we need to wake up now.”