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Entering Knesset, environmental crusader warns Israel is lagging on clean energy

Zionist Union’s Yael Cohen-Paran says gas deal is ‘outrageous,’ cautions Jewish state could run out of resource in a decade

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (left) and Dir.-Gen. Ronen Flut are seen in front of a solar field outside the Knesset, on Sunday, March 29, 2015. (photo credit: Courtesy Knesset)
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (left) and Dir.-Gen. Ronen Flut are seen in front of a solar field outside the Knesset, on Sunday, March 29, 2015. (photo credit: Courtesy Knesset)

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes the podium at next week’s United Nations climate conference in Paris — a first for an Israeli prime minister — newly sworn-in Knesset member Yael Cohen-Paran from Zionist Union wryly recommends he reenact the dramatic 44-second pause from his UN General Assembly address.

“I promise you that he will speak about terror, the terror in Paris, he will probably speak about Iran. But when it comes to global warming, let him do his ‘speech of silence,’ because he has nothing to say,” said Cohen-Paran.

The lawmaker, sworn in on Wednesday after Zionist Union MK Danny Atar quit to head the Jewish National Fund, is the first representative of the Green Party — which failed to win Knesset seats in the 2009 elections — to enter Israel’s parliament. In an interview with The Times of Israel, the CEO of the Israel Energy Forum and longtime environmental activist maintained that the Israeli government has “no vision,” when it comes to renewable energy, and due to narrow political concerns and general foot-dragging has neglected its most precious natural resource: the sun.

Cohen-Paran also forcefully condemned the impending gas deal as “outrageous,” saying that if it passes, it will go down in Israel’s “history books.” Moreover, she argued that Israel is wholly unprepared for any sort of gas leak in its offshore reserves that could spur a serious environmental crisis, could run out of gas within the next decade, and makes “excuses” to the world about its size to explain its failure to make strides to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Zionist Union MK Yael Cohen-Paran (courtesy)
Zionist Union MK Yael Cohen-Paran (courtesy)

After graduating from Hebrew University of Jerusalem with an undergraduate degree in physics, Cohen-Paran began a graduate program on solar power, which she said she believes is the “real solution the world needs.” But in 1999, after a year, she switched gears. “I understood that the research has already found the solutions, and that the solutions are not implemented,” she said.

That was “a great turning point in my life,” she said, adding that’s when she left the program and went toward public service and activism.

Israel lagging on renewable energy

According to Cohen-Paran, Israel’s energy sector — both in the Energy Ministry and the Israel Electric Corporation — is deeply “conservative,” lacks vision and operates under the mantra of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

At first, renewable energy plans were nixed over expense, and now for “technical reasons,” she said, terming the latter “nonsense, a distortion of the facts, half-truths.”

In terms of expense, Cohen-Paran pointed to research she was involved in that concluded that having 80 percent renewable energy would not cost Israel’s economy more than alternative sources. The research “has been criticized,” she conceded. “But this has to be the vision — that we can.”

When it comes to renewable energy, Israel suffers from a “lack of leadership, a lack of vision,” and a total misunderstanding of the benefits, she said. “The whole world understands and is moving ahead, and in Israel, [there’s an attitude] of ‘if it isn’t happening it isn’t economical, if it were economical, it would happen.'” Meanwhile, she said, no one is pushing it forward.

Cohen-Paran attributed the lag to both the innate conservatism and “narrow political interests,” namely the government’s propping up of the IEC, which primarily runs on coal.

On September 20, a government plan outlining several energy objectives for the coming decades was presented in the Knesset. The proposal included a goal of 17% energy efficiency by 2030, which is “ridiculous,” Cohen-Paran said, but “at least it was something.” This week, the government dropped the proposal, after a battle between the Energy Ministry that was defending the IEC interests and the Environmental Ministry, she said.

‘The whole world understands and is moving ahead’

Israel’s current situation is “not sustainable” due to depleting resources, and harmful effects on the environment, she said, but the government keeps making “excuses.”

“The excuses are many: ‘we’re a small state, we have other troubles, leave us alone. We have no hydro, we have no geothermal, we don’t have a lot of territory, so leave us alone.’ This is largely the excuse… and this unfortunately, is what we are telling the world.”

Compounding what Cohen-Paran said was the “absurdity” of the situation, is that Israel in the 1960s was the world leader in solar energy, but the sunny Jewish state has largely failed to capitalize on its most promising natural resource.

A home in Tzur Hadassah with a solar photovoltaic energy system installed on the roof (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A home in Tzur Hadassah with a solar photovoltaic energy system installed on the roof (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“At the end of the day, Israel was the first in the world with the thermo-solar technology,” she said, citing former prime minister David Ben Gurion’s comments that solar energy was Israel’s future and pointing to the Israeli solar power plants built in California in the 1960s.

“In Israel today, we use two percent solar energy. We have twice as much sun as European countries, such as Germany and others, that apply much more. And it’s incredible, just incredible.”

Gas deal is ‘outrageous’

In criticizing the gas deal between Israel and Nobel Energy and Delek, which is still pending a Knesset vote, Cohen-Paran cautioned that Israel could run out of gas within 8-10 years.

“The gas deal is outrageous, simply outrageous. I think history books will study what happened here,” she said, adding that she hopes it will still be revised.

The deal “anchors the monopoly,” she said, and is “a total capitulation of Israel to the companies, to a monopoly.”

An aerial view of an Israeli offshore gas rig (Albatross Aerial photography/Noble Energy/Flash90/File)
An aerial view of an Israeli offshore gas rig (Albatross Aerial photography/Noble Energy/Flash90/File)

Cohen-Paran said she sees gas as a stepping-stone before Israel adopts renewable energy. “The renewable energy will still take 20-30 years. I wish it was sooner. If, within 10 years, Israel moves to renewable energy, then let them export all the gas — but I don’t see Israel doing that.”

All Israel does is “talk, talk, talk about how wonderful it is that we have gas, but in practice, they’re just shipping it abroad,” she added.

Moreover, Cohen-Paran said the gas deal ensures that Israel’s “nonexistent” environmental regulations with regard to offshore drilling “remain nonexistent.”

In other states that drill offshore, oil leaks and environmental disasters are a matter of “when,” not “if,” she said.

“It’s obvious that it will happen, the question is what are we doing to prepare… it’s part of this industry… Israel is not prepared at all for a disaster or a leak of oil in the Mediterranean.”

“I don’t want to even imagine it,” she said.

Seeking coalition support

As a parliamentarian, Cohen-Paran plans to work on bills on climate change, the housing crisis and animal rights. She is also opposed to the Zionist Union entering the coalition, saying that “we need to fight in the opposition, so that in the next election, the government will be switched.”

At the same time, she hopes that environmental issues can draw support from both coalition and opposition lawmakers “because these aren’t issues of left and right.

“We’re thinking about our future here,” she said, “about what kind of world we’re leaving for our children.”

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