Government announces new climate steps, to derision of environmental groups

In runup to key UN confab, PM adopts call to declare climate change a national security issue, but no decisions taken on key steps such as a climate law, carbon tax

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Illustrative. Heatwave. (iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative. Heatwave. (iStock by Getty Images)

A week before the start of critical United Nations climate talks in Scotland and two days before the release of a damning State Comptroller report on Israel’s handling of the climate crisis, the government on Sunday bowed to the Environmental Protection Ministry’s demand that climate change be declared a national security issue.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced that climate change will henceforth be included in strategic threat planning and be added to the scenarios for which the security establishment, the army and the Home Front must plan.

That was a key demand, not only of the environmental lobby, but also of a small group of experts in security and diplomacy.

The call formed one of several policy steps contained in a national plan for dealing with the climate crisis (in Hebrew) that the Environmental Protection Ministry put before the cabinet on Sunday.

Another one, calling for support to accelerate climate tech development, was also approved, although without any budget.

But several key demands for steps that are being adopted throughout the developed world were missing from the prime minister’s statement.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on October 24, 2021. (Yoav Dudkevitch/POOL)

Among them is the climate law, which was drafted in April, and is being held up by objections from the energy and finance ministries; a carbon tax; work with financial regulators to ensure that the implications for climate change are weighed before any investments are made; and the integration into the pricing of fossil fuels of what are known as indirect costs — to society, public health, and the environment.

Were indirect costs to be included in the pricing of oil and gas, those fossil fuels would be exposed as even costlier than they are already in comparison with renewable energy sources such as the sun.

Environmental organizations derided the prime minister’s announcement.

“Government of shame,” the marine protection organization Zalul wrote on Twitter. With the State Comptroller about to issue a damning report about Israel’s lack of preparedness for the climate crisis, Zalul said, the country had no real achievements to present at the UN conference in Glasgow, which wants global warming to be held to no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial era temperatures.

View of Haifa’s oil refineries and other industrial areas, on May 5, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90/File)

“Instead of a climate law and concrete action plans, the government is presenting a number of statements that have no backing, no government agreements, and no accompanying implementation plans,” Zalul charged.

Greenpeace Israel wrote on Twitter that “Israel has failed, by and large, to meet its meager climate targets and, without a binding climate law, it is not clear what is about to change now.

“The government program is a collection of good intentions without [financial] backing, as long as the gas and oil industry continues to expand its activities in the country, with the encouragement of the ministries of energy and finance,” Greenpeace said.

“The science is clear. A country that continues to develop the fossil fuel industry and does not commit to reducing about half of its greenhouse gas emissions [as called for by UN Secretary-General António Guterres] by 2030 is part of the Earth’s problem.”

Young Israelis striking for action on climate change in the Carmel area of Haifa in northern Israel, October 23, 2021. (Emergency Headquarters for Climate and Ecology, Israel)

Strike for Future Israel, also taking to Twitter, addressed Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, saying, “Tamar, this climate package is an attempt to whitewash [the fact that] a climate law is not being implemented. Why aren’t you raging about the decision of the Energy Ministry and the Finance Ministry to torpedo a climate law? Why aren’t you shouting about this from every possible platform? Why are you giving up on our future?”

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a press release saying that the government had approved four resolutions.

These include promoting clean, low-carbon transportation, a substantial shift to using public transportation and the electrification of that transportation; accelerated building of infrastructure and the removal of obstacles to renewable energy; the encouragement of innovation in climate technology; and support for industry, commerce and local government to help them cut their global warming emissions.

Buses on a public transport route in Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The only resolution that had a budget attached — NIS 725 million ($226 million) was the last one, and it was unclear how much of that sum is actually new.

“The climate crisis is one of the major issues on the world agenda,” Bennett said in a statement. “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.”

According to the press release from the Prime Minister’s Office, task forces are to be established, chaired by the PMO director general, to push forward “infrastructure projects of national importance” needed to help the country transition to a low-carbon economy. These infrastructure projects will be added to the multi-year infrastructures development plan published annually by the PMO, in order to strengthen coordination and synchronization.

Yair Pines, Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office, arrives at a cabinet meeting at the PMO in Jerusalem, September 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

One of the task forces, involving the Finance Ministry’s accountant general and the attorney general, will focus on accelerating climate technologies by lifting regulatory barriers to the research, development, application and assimilation of technologies to reduce GHG emissions. The PMO’s director general will work to arrange funds for climate tech development, through joint research projects with other countries and the “pooling of resources” from various ministries.

A new Prime Minister’s Committee on Climate Technology and Innovation will be set up, under Bennett’s chairmanship, with the participation of the directors general of the PMO, the Energy Ministry, the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Economy and Industry Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry, along with senior representatives from government, the private sector, academia and third sector organizations.

Another task force will focus on preparing the country for natural disasters and extreme events such as fires and floods, working on solutions and policy steps to remove obstacles.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire near Givat Ye’arim, near Jerusalem, August 16, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Approval was also given to the establishment of an interministerial forum for renewable energies, to be headed by Energy Minister Karine Elharrar. Its first meeting will be held on Monday.

The Energy Ministry also announced a flurry of measures (though no money), pledging, among other things, to upgrade the infrastructure for electric vehicles, reduce emissions in urban areas, cut pollution from ships, and adopt international standards to allow for hydrogen refueling stations.

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