'Israel is not prepared for the climate crisis'

Ahead of world climate meet, watchdog says Israel over-polluting, underpreparing

In report described as ‘warning light,’ ombudsman slams lack of government focus, failure to budget and implement decisions, rising emissions and too-modest targets

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Israelis attend a rally calling for action against climate crisis and the ecological crisis in Tel Aviv on November 29, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Israelis attend a rally calling for action against climate crisis and the ecological crisis in Tel Aviv on November 29, 2019. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

With just five days until world leaders assemble in Scotland for a major climate summit aimed at putting the brakes on galloping climate change, the State Comptroller has issued a stinging report on the lack of action taken by successive Israeli governments over the past decade to prepare the country for the looming climate crisis.

The 659-page dossier documents how government decisions were repeatedly made and then neither properly budgeted for nor implemented. It shows how rising global warming gas emissions — more typical of a medium-sized country — have been hidden from view by per capita figures rather than absolute ones, how unambitious targets for lowering emissions have lost the economy a potential NIS 217 billion ($67.7 billion at today’s prices), and that the state’s target of having 30 percent of energy coming from renewable sources by 2030 is the lowest in the OECD.

Describing the findings as a “warning light,” State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman told a media briefing that climate change threatened national security and geopolitics in light of predicted shortages of food and water in neighboring states. It posed hazards to the economy and financial institutions, national infrastructure, public health, ecosystems and biodiversity, at-risk populations and more.

Despite all that, “Israel is one of the few countries in the world that does not yet operate on the basis of a budgeted and approved national deployment plan, even though it is in an area with increased risk, and is therefore even more exposed to the risks of climate change,” he said, referring to assessments that show the region warming faster than the global average.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman at the Calcalist conference in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The State of Israel is not prepared for the climate crisis and there has not yet been a change of perception in Israeli policy on the issues. There are substantial gaps between the perception in Israel and in the world.”

The audit examined the actions of dozens of government ministries, state and public bodies and financial institutions on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to cope with changes that are already happening as the result of climate change. It also reviewed what other countries, international groups and professional organizations have been doing.

Englman plans to present the report, and the methodology used, to other countries at COP26, the United Nations climate conference set to kick off in Glasgow, Scotland, on October 31.

The audit found that Israeli governments had made decisions aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions following the country’s ratification of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1996, but did not take the steps necessary to implement them properly. Not only did inaction leave the country behind the curve of much of the rest of developed world on reducing its carbon footprint, but it also cost the economy NIS 217 billion in potential savings.

That figure includes external costs, such as attempting to price the impact of pollution on a forest’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.  The science of such cost analyses is still new and many experts advise treating such numbers with caution.

View of the entrance to a flooded parking lot in the northern coastal city of Nahariya, January 9, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The State Comptroller calls on the government to recognize the climate crisis as a national threat or emergency; to create, budget and empower a permanent body that can implement climate crisis-related plans; to pass a climate law; and to consider integrating the external costs of fossil fuel use into all climate-related calculations across all ministries.

Much of the report, which mainly goes back to 2015, focuses on the policies and actions of governments that had been under the helm of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The current government, which took power in June, has signaled a shift toward a more green agenda, addressing some of the issues tackled in the report. That includes an announcement Sunday that climate change will henceforth be treated as a national security issue.

Progress at zero

Unlike many other developed nations that committed to absolute emissions cuts in line with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, Israel initially only promised to cut pollution per capita, in order to take its OECD-leading birthrate into account. But the report notes that even its target of 7.7 tons of CO₂ equivalent per capita by 2030 remains unrealized, hitting 8.5 tons per person in 2020.

In July, Israel sent a revised commitment to the UN, with a goal of cutting emissions by 27% by 2030 and 85% by 2050, against a baseline of 2015 figures, though going by the report, it does not look as if the country is nearing that goal.

In fact, it notes that progress in hitting targets for emissions cuts in particular sectors, such as energy and transportation, varied between “being behind, to zero.”

Traffic jams on the Ayalon highway during the Passover holiday, March 30, 2021. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

It commends the Energy Ministry for its progress toward eliminating coal by 2025, but singles it out critically for its lethargic approach to renewable energy compared with its enthusiasm for natural gas, large quantities of which have been discovered off Israel’s Mediterranean coast in recent years.

The platform of the Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, pictured from the northern beach of Dor on December 31, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Targets for renewables as a percentage of all energy — originally 17% by 2030, updated last summer to 30% — have not been reached. By the end of 2020, the figure stood at only 6.1%, the report chides.

Even the 30% target — which, according to the report, is not in line with the Paris Agreement’s requirement for “ambitious” goals, is the lowest among OECD countries, which are aiming at anything from 40% to 100% renewables by the end of this decade.

The report also criticizes the government for only aiming to reach a low-carbon economy by 2050, rather than a net zero one in which all carbon used is offset. The Energy Ministry, for instance, is only aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% in the energy sector by 2050, and has no target for how much of the country’s energy generation should come from renewable sources by then.

View of the Ashalim solar power station in the Negev desert, southern Israel, on August 21, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Even a low-carbon economy will be hard to reach if natural gas or other fossil fuels remains a significant part of Israel’s energy array, it warns.

“Leaving a mix of 70% natural gas energy after 2030 without setting renewable energy targets for 2050 lays the groundwork for planning, development and investment for the further development of the gas economy in Israel, and could hurt a future transition to a low-carbon economy,” the report reads.

The cost of inaction

The ombudsman is also critical of a lack of government action aimed at preparing the country for the looming effects of climate change, which experts say will cause more extreme weather events and debilitating resource scarcities, among other potentially catastrophic consequences.

The report notes that in 2018, the government mandated the formulation of a national adaptation strategy “to prepare in advance for risks in the sectors of health, agriculture and food, water and energy, infrastructure, planning and local authorities, emergency services, state security and biodiversity.”

But three years after that decision, “Israel has no national, budgeted operational plan ready for implementation,” the comptroller warns.

According to the report, 51 out of 63 public bodies answering a questionnaire have not examined the issue within the framework of organizational risk management and 49 of the 63 have not mapped the risks and the likely effect of climate change on their activities.

A Climate Change Preparedness Directorate established by government fiat in 2018 lacks authority, is seriously underfunded, does not have the necessary staff positions and is headed only part-time by a ministry official, the report charges.

A brush fire near Barta’a in the Wadi Ara region amid a heatwave, July 17, 2019. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Israel’s Meteorological Service, meanwhile, does not have the money to carry out critical climate simulations.

Government investment in energy, water, environmental and sustainability technology has been low, representing just 4% of  Innovation Authority investment in 2018.

The comptroller also points out that not a single government economic body or body involved in macroeconomic forecasts has assessed the potential damage and long-term effects of climate change on the Israeli market. Regulators should go as far as requiring banks and other financial institutions to factor the impacts of climate change into investment decisions, Englman advises.

International research shows that under a business-as-usual scenario (in which no mitigation is undertaken), climate change could reduce average world gross domestic product by up to 18.1% by 2050. In the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa, GDP could drop by up to 27.5%.

But in a rare bright spot, the report credits the Bank of Israel and its banking regulator with starting to take climate change more seriously in 2020.

The report points out that as of July this year, Israel had not joined the 61 countries that have adopted some form of carbon pricing. This could threaten trade with Europe once the European Commission moves ahead with plans to impose a special tariff on non-EU producers who have not paid carbon tax at home.

Israel in August announced limited plans to impose a carbon-offset tax on some fuels starting in 2023, but details of the scheme remain unclear.

Both the Environmental Protection and Energy Ministries welcomed the State Comptroller’s report.

The former vowed to continue working for a climate law, improved targets for renewable energy, and a net-zero economy.

The Energy Ministry said that particularly intensive efforts had been made since June, when Elharrar became minister, to push renewable energy and move toward a low-carbon economy strategy.

The roadmap, as well as the goals presented by the ministry, which were formulated in full cooperation with all relevant parties, clearly paved the way for the transition of the Israeli economy to renewable energies, it said, while allowing “the flexibility required in the future to integrate innovative technologies.”

It added that many considerations had to be taken into account, such as energy security, supply reliability, geopolitics, reduction of emissions, growth in the economy and the unique characteristics of Israel.

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