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Analysis

COP27 didn’t slash emissions, but it did give Israeli climate tech a global stage

With first ever pavilion at UN climate meet, Israeli officials, firms and NGOs showcase solutions while signing agreements and commercial deals at an otherwise disappointing confab

Sue Surkes

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

FILE - A sign reading "fossil fuels out" is displayed during a demonstration at the COP27 UN Climate Summit, on November 12, 2022, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.  (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)
FILE - A sign reading "fossil fuels out" is displayed during a demonstration at the COP27 UN Climate Summit, on November 12, 2022, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, File)

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — As the world gallops toward what scientists warn would be a catastrophic rise of 3° Celsuis (5.4° Fahrenheit) in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels by 2100, environment-focused officials and activists from all over the world have taken to social media to slam the recent UN climate conference in Egypt as a failure.

Like the 26 meetings before it, COP27 did not clamp down on the single most important danger to the planet — the human-generated emissions that are causing global warming.

With reported obstruction from fossil fuel states such as Saudi Arabia and China,  and the presence of more than 600 executives and lobbyists from fossil fuel companies — a rise of 25 percent compared with last year — governments proved incapable of approving a slew of badly-needed resolutions.

These included determining that emissions would peak in 2025, that coal use would stop within a specified time frame, and that fossil fuels in general would be “phased down,” not to mention phased out.

Some of the harder decisions on implementing a cap-and-trade emissions market were also postponed.

Some fossil fuel-rich countries even tried, but failed, to pull back from an agreement cemented at last year’s COP26 in Scotland to keep temperature rises to 1.5° C (2.7° F) above pre-industrial levels — a goal that looks increasingly illusory anyway.

The next COP meeting will be held in December 2023 in the petro-kingdom of Dubai, raising a question mark over prospects for stronger action next year.

The COP resolution required to wind up the conference needed the unanimous agreement of nearly 200 countries organized into blocs, all with their own political and economic agendas, which is why these events — attended, as they are, by thousands of energetic, committed and well-meaning people from the entire spectrum of activity on climate — often end with such deep frustration and despair.

For the Middle East, a hotspot in which temperatures are rising twice as fast as the global average, the future looks even bleaker. The region is on track to reach a mind-bending 4°Celsius (7.2° Fahrenheit) or even 5° Celsius (9° Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, unless radical action is taken.

It was always going to be a difficult COP, given the strains on budgets brought on by the global energy crunch and food shortages, the rush to extract more fossil fuels to make up for supply cuts from Russia, and an emissions trajectory that continues to rise.

A smiling Binyamin (Bini) Zomer, Corporate Affairs Manager for Chevron Mediterranean Limited, which extracts much of Israel’s natural gas, seen in the coffee bar at Israel’s pavilion at the UN COP27 climate conference, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 9, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

But there were some positive results from the UN’s biggest annual shindig.

In contrast to last year’s COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, this year’s confab in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh emphasized the needs of Africa and the developing world.

The spotlight was on adaptation to the consequences of climate change rather than its causes.

Progress included a commitment in principle (without any detail) by the richer countries to create a “loss and damage” fund to help the global south recover from the devastating effects of increasingly extreme weather events.

Also agreed on was the need to reform the international financial institutions such as the multilateral development banks to ensure that more climate finance flows to developing countries.

The US and China — the biggest emitters in the world — started working together again on climate, putting the fallout from former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan earlier this year behind them.

And additional countries joined a pledge launched in Glasgow last year to cut emissions of methane — a particularly powerful warming gas — by 30% by the end of this decade.

Israel was represented by President Isaac Herzog and four outgoing ministers — Tamar Zandberg from the Environmental Protection Ministry, Orit Farkash Hacohen from the Science and Technology Ministry, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, and Issawi Frej, minister of regional cooperation.

With a right-wing victory delivered by Israeli elections just days before the conference began, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid and several other ministers decided that it would be inappropriate for them to attend.

During the event, which ended on November 18, officials from many ministries flew in and out, according to different themes spread over the 11 days of the confab.

They included representatives of the finance and defense ministries, and the National Security Council within the Prime Minister’s Office. The NSC added climate change into its national risk list earlier this year, and is employing an expert on the subject for the first time: Victor Weiss, a former director of Israel’s Heschel Sustainability Center, which works for a just transition to a low-carbon economy.

There was standing room only within the events section of Israel’s first-ever UN COP pavilion, while other people sat at tables just outside, at the UN COP27 climate conference, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 9, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The country’s first-ever COP pavilion was big, buzzy and given prime real estate in the first of several pavilion buildings, near the official US stage and events area.

The pavilion, with its four daily panel events and lectures, its space to sit and talk or work, and especially its free coffee without a queue, turned it into a magnet.

It sometimes felt as if the entire Israeli environmental world passed through it at some point during the confab. Estimates of the number of Israelis at COP varied from several hundred to well over 1,000.

Israel’s pavilion at the UN COP27 climate conference showcased Israeli climate technology, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 9, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The Israeli government invested in the pavilion for two main reasons, according to Yuval Laster, head of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s policy and strategy unit.

The first was to convey that climate innovation is where Israel can make a real global contribution, and Jerusalem also sought to promote Israel’s keen interest in international, and especially regional, climate cooperation.

The Foreign Ministry’s special climate envoy, Ambassador Gideon Behar, who pushed hard for Israel to exhibit climate solutions, told The Times of Israel that country delegations from as far afield as Spain, China and the Pacific island of Tuvalu had visited the pavilion, and that he had been interviewed at least 20 times by media from countries including China, Morocco and the Czech Republic.

From left: Foreign Ministry Special Climate Envoy Ambassador Gideon Behar, singer-songwriter and activist Ahinoam Nini, coral expert Prof Maoz Fine of the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat in southern Israel, and Israel’s Ambassador to Egypt, Amira Oron, at the Israel pavilion, COP27, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Courtesy, Gideon Behar)

In regional terms, three events of great symbolic importance took place at this year’s conference.

The first was a meeting of heads of states from the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East (EMME) under the leadership of the Cypriot and Egyptian presidents to approve a regional climate plan that has been in the making for three years.

The event saw Tamar Zandberg stepping in for President Herzog and sitting in the same room as leaders from enemy states such as Iraq and Lebanon.

The meeting seemed to underline an increasing understanding that countries of the region face similar challenges and that working together might be the only way for them to face the challenges that lie ahead.

Israel’s Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg (right, with back to camera) sits two seats away from Iraq’s President Abdul Latif Rashid at a meeting of leaders of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East at the COP27 conference in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, November 8, 2022. (Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry)

In a separate move, Israel and Jordan signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the Hashemite kingdom to build solar fields in its vast deserts to supply renewable energy to Israel, in exchange for desalinated water.

The agreement further cements a deal brokered by the UAE and the US climate envoy John Kerry a year ago.

Jerusalem and Amman also signed a declaration of intent to partner in the ecological restoration and sustainable development of the Jordan River.

On an academic level, Haifa University in northern Israel signed a Memorandum of Understanding with two universities in the UAE and the German GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel to study marine ecosystems in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Gulf in the light of climate change.

But it was in climate technology that the Israeli presence was most keenly felt, with some 50 companies attending. They mixed with potential partners at a number of events organized by bodies such as PLANETech, and the Israel Export Institute, the latter in partnership with the Economy Ministry’s Foreign Trade Administration, the Foreign Ministry and the Israeli Manufacturers Association.

“We have experienced the exponential growth of Israeli climate tech over recent months, and COP27 will surely accelerate this trend,” said Uriel Klar, PLANETech’s director. He traveled with climate tech companies to the confab in a bus to avoid air travel-related emissions.

A special coach took members of Israel’s climate technology delegation to the UN COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on November 6, 2022. (Courtesy, PLANETech)

Among several deals that were sealed during COP27, the Israeli hydrogen company H2Pro and Moroccan renewable energy developer Gaia Energy signed a strategic agreement for the supply of a special Israeli electrolyzer for the production of hydrogen.

Tomorrow.io, the developer of a weather and climate analytics platform, announced a new partnership with Microsoft to provide early warning systems to governments, businesses, and farmers in Africa.

Criaterra, which focuses on manufacturing technologies that replace the conventional kiln-firing processes for cement and ceramics to produce fully recyclable construction materials, was one of two winners of a climate tech prize awarded by the US State Department, in partnership with the impact funds of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, LinkedIn and General Electric.

In addition to a cash award of $30,000, Criaterra will join Google’s mentoring program for start-up companies and be invited to discussions with the various impact funds.

Africa representatives gather at Senegal’s pavilion to hear about Desertech’s plan to support the building of the Great Green Wall, November 10, at COP27, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Finally, DeserTech, an Israeli platform for climate technologies geared to dry and desert climates, launched a program to partner with the Global Mechanism of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and the 11 African countries leading the “Great Green Wall” movement.

The Great Green Wall is an African-led initiative aimed at rehabilitating 1 million square kilometers (250 million acres) of degraded land across the Sahel region by 2030, generating millions of jobs, and capturing 250 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who memorably mocked world leaders last year for all their “blah blah blah,” did not visit COP27, on the grounds, she claimed, that leaders just talked but didn’t act.

The problem is that it is the only climate event that brings all the stakeholders to the table.

The bulk of the Israeli media left the confab a day or two after it started, leaving this reporter and a journalist from Haaretz seemingly the only ones still there to cover events.

And as COP27 ended, the world’s attention shifted to the opening of the World Cup in Qatar, prompting Behar to reflect on the press’ priorities.

“Twenty-two people running after a ball,” he grumbled, “interest the Israeli and international media more than the future of humanity.”

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