In run-up to crucial 2020 UN climate conference, Israel speaks with two voices
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In run-up to crucial 2020 UN climate conference, Israel speaks with two voices

With public pressure behind it, Environmental Protection Ministry strides toward solar energy. But Energy Ministry still issues permits for oil, gas, fracking, though it cuts coal

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

Israeli activists and demonstrators hold placards as they take part in a protest against inaction on climate change in Tel Aviv on September 27, 2019. (Ahmad Ghababli/AFP)
Israeli activists and demonstrators hold placards as they take part in a protest against inaction on climate change in Tel Aviv on September 27, 2019. (Ahmad Ghababli/AFP)

In its Sisyphean efforts to reverse the march of global warming, the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 kicked off in Madrid last Monday with a call by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres to “finally demonstrate that we are serious in our commitment to stop the war against nature – that we have the political will to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.”

COP25, which meets through December 13 and requires governments to explain how they will reach goals they have already pledged to cut greenhouse gases (GHG) by 2030, is mainly a prelude to the more important COP26 set for Glasgow, Scotland, at the end of next year, where the same countries will have to submit updated and increased targets and plans.

To date, the Israeli government’s target — which many environmentalists deride — has been to ensure that 17 percent of the country’s energy is generated by renewables (read: solar energy) by 2030. Greece, by comparison, with its poorer economy, already produces more than 20% of its power from sun and wind. And, according to a leaked document, the European Commission will issue, by October next year, a comprehensive plan for boosting the EU’s greenhouse gas emission reduction target for 2030 to at least 50% and towards 55%.

Recently, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who will be flying to Madrid Tuesday to represent Israel at the talks, said he was “considering” raising the renewables target for 2030 to between 25% and 30% and would be consulting with his professional staff.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The Environmental Protection Ministry, which occupies a relatively low position on the political food chain, wants a strategic government decision to move Israel toward a renewable energy-based economy. At the Israel Climate Conference last month, Dr. Gil Proaktor, Head of Climate Change Policy at the ministry, said, “We shouldn’t build infrastructure for non-renewable energy that will commit us for 30 years.”

But the Energy Ministry, with Steinitz at its helm, appears to be doing just that,  continuing to push for non-renewable energy sources — chiefly natural gas, which, while cleaner than coal, still releases climate-warming methane and other materials that are harmful to the environment and public health.

It plans to build gas-fired power stations and gas-fired transportation systems, to encourage further gas and oil exploration and — in the name of “energy diversity” — to issue new permits for oil shale fracking, a highly polluting practice that has already been banned by several OECD countries, among them Germany, France, the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands. Two terrestrial oil exploration targets were issued this year.

With massive fossil fuel interests on one side and growing public pressure on the government to do more to arrest climate change on the other, who will win the battle to shape Israel’s carbon footprint in the years to come?

Will Israelis have to don masks like in Beijing?

There are two aspects to the climate change challenge — lowering emissions of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet (the subject of this article) and mitigating and adapting to the effects of global warming on nature and humankind (to be addressed in forthcoming ones).

While the Middle East and North Africa are likely to suffer most from global warming, climate change will not be influenced by Israel — the country is too small.

However, the effects on Israel’s population and environment of warming and of emissions-related pollution is already keenly felt. According to OECD data published in 2017, air pollution killed 2,240 Israelis in 2015.

People, some wearing masks for protection against pollution, walk across a traffic intersection in the central business district of Beijing, China, on November 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

In an introduction to an 2018 Energy Ministry report on meeting 2030 GHG reduction targets, Steinitz wrote, “The State of Israel is about to become the most crowded country in the West. Will we suffocate in the future from the pollution we produce — pollution emitted daily and hourly from the dozens of power generating plants, from the millions of cars on the streets and roads, factories and industries? As a result of seemingly positive developments such as demographic growth, economic growth, and rising living standards, will our life in this country become hell? In 20 years, will we have to live in our homes behind air filters and wear paper masks on our faces like they do in Beijing?”

Limiting global warming

In April 2016, Israel was one of nearly 200 nations to sign the Paris Agreement (COP21) to limit global warming to below 2°C above preindustrial levels and to try to limit it to 1.5°C. Key to the deal was that signatories would set their own reduction targets (“nationally determined contributions”) and their own implementation plans.

In September 2015, in preparation for the Paris convention, the Israeli government pledged to cut around a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions that would reach the atmosphere by 2030 under a Business As Usual (BAU) scenario.

To achieve this, it set sector-specific targets — to cut electricity consumption by at least 17% and private car mileage by at least 20% relative to BAU. An additional target was set for the production of at least 17% of total electricity generation from renewable energy by 2030.

Pollution seen from an unrecognized Bedouin village close to the Ramat Hovav industrial zone in southern Israel, December 28, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/FLASH90)

In April 2016, the government approved a national plan to implement the targets. These included, for example, cutting back on coal, improving waste disposal (a key source of methane), moving to more electric vehicles, and expanding green building. September 2016 saw the publication of the Israel National Plan for Implementation of the Paris Agreement.

Israel wakes up

Israel still has few electric vehicles and little green building. It also lags far behind most developed nations in environmental awareness.

Global warming is not yet part of prime ministerial or ministerial discourse. On the contrary — earlier this year, the Prime Minister’s Office tried an anti-environment move. It caused uproar by suggesting that the authority of the Environmental Protection Ministry to issue environmental regulations should be weakened and that officials there should weigh “economic” (read: business) considerations when they drew up emissions permits.

Over the past year, however, and particularly since Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg strode onto the international stage, Israelis have been waking up to the climate crisis and the media has gone through a transformation in coverage.

Former TV broadcaster and Blue and White Party environmental campaigner and animal rights activist Miki Haimovich pictured at a dog shelter appealing to viewers to give Shimi and other abandoned dogs a home. (YouTube screenshot)

The Blue and White party has a strident voice in Miki Heimovich, an animal rights campaigner and former journalist who wants to become environmental protection minister.

And in July, MK Stav Shaffir quit the Labor party to lead the Green Movement, part of the Democratic Union, in September’s elections.

Schoolchildren and their parents have begun taking to the streets in small but growing numbers. Some 1,500 people turned up to last month’s fourth annual Israel Climate Conference (up from 550 last year), while an additional 3,000  followed it on livestream. Under growing public pressure, municipalities are moving to reduce disposable plastic in kindergartens and schools or to cut their energy use.

Bulldozers like this one near Kiryat Menachem in southwest Jerusalem have become a common site on roads as the city prepares new routes for the Jerusalem Light Rail, January 7, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And residents of big cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, stuck in endless traffic jams, are only too aware of the works underway to build electric light rail routes. There are a few electric city buses (78 so far, out of a 5,000-strong fleet), 1,500 hybrid taxis, and the fast train line from Ben Gurion Airport to Tel Aviv is finally being electrified. (Electricity-driven transport is not pollution free, of course, if fossil fuels are used; the pollutants are just generated farther away.)

The first carpool lane opened recently on the Ayalon Highway and a cycle highway is being built in central Israel’s Dan region.

The Jerusalem to Ben Gurion Airport section of the high speed Jerusalem-Tel Aviv train line seen on the outskirts of Jerusalem, on September 25, 2018. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Fossil fuels vs. solar energy

Given that fossil fuels for power, industry and construction comprise around half of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, the key to Israel’s future carbon footprint will lie in the balance struck between those fuels (mainly natural gas) and renewable energy (primarily solar) and the extent to which government will clamp down on industries that pollute.

The decision, while ultimately political, has economic, environmental and security ramifications.

Udi Adiri, Director General of the Israeli Energy Ministry. (YouTube screenshot)

Carbon dioxide emissions have declined by 20% over the past five years as natural gas has replaced coal, according to Energy Ministry Director General Udi Adiri.

By 2025, coal in Israel is set to become history.

Today, natural gas is being trumpeted as Israel’s passport to energy independence and as a source of energy that is “clean.”

The Tamar field began operating in 2013 and, despite public protests, the country’s largest gas field, Leviathan, will begin commercial production by the end of this year.

Proponents of renewables point out that an enemy could bring Israel to its knees far more easily by knocking out a few natural gas rigs than by attacking millions of solar panels dispersed around the country.

The Leviathan natural gas platform off the shore of Israel. (Albatross)

But natural gas is also worth a lot of money. While the regulatory Electricity Authority is charged with keeping prices affordable — and solar energy is rapidly becoming cheaper than natural gas — the Finance Ministry may be eyeing the windfalls that will one day fill government coffers from levies on fossil fuels.

Committing Israel to natural gas and still seeking oil

Where there is gas there is often oil as well, and the Energy Ministry has made clear that it will continue to issue licenses to explore for both.

Among an inter-ministerial team’s recommendations published in December and approved by the government in January are ensuring a natural gas supply to the Israeli market of 500 billion cubic meters a year until 2042 and taking “additional measures to incentivize petroleum exploration and production activity offshore.”

View of the oil refineries in the Haifa Bay, May 5, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

The main consumer of crude oil in Israel is the BAZAN Group, an oil refining and petrochemicals company located in Haifa Bay that was criticized in a June state comptroller’s report for numerous breaches and failures.

Refineries refine crude oil that rigs extract into products such as diesel, gasoline and heating oils as well as liquids for industries such as plastics, paints, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and packaging. Indeed, humankind’s ability to come up with sustainable alternatives to the mind-boggling array of consumer products that are based on oil will help determine the future of this fossil fuel industry.

In the name of “diversity in the sources of energy,” which the ministry sees as important, according to a spokesperson, the Energy Ministry is also actively encouraging land-based oil-shale exploration across an area that currently covers 10% of the country and has the potential to produce hundreds of millions of barrels of oil, according to a recent Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel report.

Active Petroleum Rights, on and offshore, updated to October 29, 2019, Ministry of Energy.

The UN International Panel on Climate Change has said that oil shale generates 150% times the greenhouse gas emissions of oceanic oil because of the production process. And that is before taking into account damage to ecosystems and the environment, the generation of hazardous waste and the danger of pollutants leaching into streams.

There is a Hebrew phrase whose meaning is that there is nothing as permanent as being temporary. On the one hand, the Energy Ministry declares that natural gas is a stepping stone toward more renewable energy. On the other hand, it seems to be doing everything possible to ensure that the economy comes to rely on it long into the future.

The government has approved the construction of no less than 16 natural gas-fired power stations, plans for the largest of which, near Kfar Saba, were approved by the National Infrastructure Committee last month. Another is due to be built in Rosh HaAyin.

Governments worldwide still promoting fossil fuels

Israel is not alone in continuing to encourage the use of fossil fuels. According to the UN’s first Production Gap Report, published last month, governments plan to produce some 50% more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting global warming to 2ºC, and 120% more than would be consistent with a 1.5ºC rise above preindustrial levels. This, says the report, is due to “minimal policy attention on curbing fossil fuel production” accompanied by government subsidies and other forms of public financial encouragement.

To help reverse this trend, the report lists policy options that include reforming the way subsidies are given, banning new extraction permits, ensuring transparency in the publishing of data about fossil fuel production and — in the case of local government — divesting from fossil fuel holdings. It notes that Belize, Costa Rica, France, Denmark, and New Zealand have all enacted partial or total bans or moratoria on oil and gas exploration and extraction.

A separate UN report, which looked at the gap in emissions as opposed to production, concluded recently that there had been no meaningful improvement over the decade and that if Business As Usual continues, the world will be looking at a global mean temperature rise of between 3.4°C and 3.7°C by 2100, relative to pre-industrial levels.

“The next decade will be defining,” the report warned. “Postponing ambition and action is no longer an option, if we want the goals of the Paris Agreement to remain within reach.”

With cost of solar energy nosediving, Arava to be 100% solar by 2020

Many visitors to Israel are impressed by the omnipresence of solar panels on the country’s roofs, but then puzzled when they learn that these only heat water and do not provide electricity. This was the reaction of Joseph (Yossi) Abramowitz when he arrived from the US at Kibbutz Ketura in the southern Arava Desert in 2006. “I thought Israel was a world leader in solar energy, then I realized that nobody was willing to take on the government,” he said. So, together with the kibbutz and a US partner, he started the Arava Power Company, which, after five years of bureaucratic battles, built the country’s first solar power station at Ketura (followed by several more), kickstarting independent energy production in Israel.

Solar water heaters on rooftops in Tel Aviv. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

With funding from the UJA Toronto Federation, Abramowitz decided — together with his “teacher” Dorit Davidovich Benet, now Director of Strategy and Regional Development at the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative — to convert the entire Arava area to daytime solar energy. This, he told The Times of Israel, will be achieved by Independence Day this April. By 2025, the region will have sufficient stored solar energy to provide electricity at night as well, he said.

Today, renewable energy accounts for 26% of the world’s electricity production, according to the Zavit environmental news service. This prevents two gigatons more of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere annually.

Yosef Abramowitz and Dorit Davidovich Benet celebrate 100% solar energy in the Arava. (Facebook)

One of the main obstacles to the growth of solar energy has been the difficulty storing energy to use when there is no sun — i.e., at night and during winters — and for peak periods of electricity usage. But rapid advances are being made all the time and the prices are coming down. Davidovich Benet is currently conducting three pilot studies to compare the storage performance of batteries, air pumps and flywheels.

Eitan Parnass, founder and CEO of the Green Energy Association of Israel (REAI), a renewables lobbying group in Israel, noted that the growth in electric transport was leading to the mass production of batteries, which would benefit solar storage too.

Is solar energy already cheaper than gas? It’s complicated, and it depends what you compare. For large, ground-based, so-called utility-scale projects producing daytime energy, it already is, in absolute terms, and the costs are coming down all the time. Last week, the Israeli arm of the French company EDF Renewables set a record low price for the production of solar energy — 8.68 agorot (3 cents) per kilowatt hour (1 kilowatt of power sustained for one hour) — winning the tender to build a fourth solar energy field (and second photovoltaic one) at Ashalim in the Negev desert.

Conversely, the price of natural gas goes up significantly if one factors in indirect costs such as harm to public health and the environment and the cost of defending the natural gas fields and rigs.

A truck cleaning the dust off the thermo-solar mirrors of the Negev Energy Ashalim plant, August 29, 2019. (Avshalom Sasoni)

In the coming months, the Electricity Authority will issue its first tender for solar panels with storage.

But there have been and still are plenty of obstacles to the spread of solar energy, which, in Israel, will make  up 99% of renewables. Until last year, the Israel Electric Company monopolized the electricity sector and did little to develop the grid for solar. A Knesset amendment then opened the way for a competitive market and transferred electricity management from the IEC to a new government company.

In a country the size of New Jersey or the UK’s Wales, with a population of around nine million that is set to reach 17 million by 2040, most available land has already been zoned for something, especially in the country’s center, where most of the energy will be consumed. And because electromagnetic fields of high-voltage transmission lines present radiation hazards, local residents will not welcome new cables with open arms.

Female soldiers train in the Negev desert. (Gili Yaari / Flash90)

The Negev Desert, which to the untrained eye would offer ample opportunity for solar fields, is mainly divided between IDF training bases and national parks. Nobody has yet publicly questioned the army’s need for such vast tracts for tank training. Much land is also subject to ownership claims by Bedouin that the state is in no hurry to address.

Gal Shofrony, head of the renewable energy department at the Electricity Authority, notes that the renewable energy options that nature has given Israel are more limited than those found in many other countries to which Israel is compared.

The state lacks both water in great quantities (for hydroelectricity) and geysers for generating thermal energy, and the amount of wind is limited. Its size means there is sensitivity about harm to landscapes. The installation of  wind turbines in northern Israel, for example, is complicated by Defense Ministry opposition and the need to protect the great numbers of birds that migrate through the country as well as local endangered species.

Migrating Gray Cranes at the Agmon Hula Lake in the Hula valley in northern Israel, November 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

And unlike European countries, which are linked by electricity grids, Israel has to be totally self-sufficient. It cannot borrow electricity from a neighbor when in need.

A vision for 2050

Still, with the stopwatch ticking until COP26, many people are focusing on what can be done and whether the 17% by 2030 renewable energy ceiling to which Israel committed at Paris can be exceeded.

Electricity-generating solar panels. (Danny Shechtman)

The Environmental Protection Ministry, in cooperation with the Israel Democracy Institute and the OECD, is working on a roadmap for a low-carbon economy by 2050.

Under Dr. Gil Proaktor, Head of Climate Change Policy and co-author of the national plan for implementing the Paris Accords, officials are focusing on transportation, energy, buildings and municipalities, industry-trade and waste. The ministry is liaising not only with the energy, transport, economy and planning directorates; and industry, local government and academia; but also with environmental and other civil society organizations, and representatives of low-socioeconomic local authorities and students. It even has a “have your say” site in Hebrew online.

Gal Shofrony, who heads the renewable energy department at the Energy Ministry. (Courtesy)

Gal Shofrony of the Electricity Authority is meanwhile coordinating work to recommend renewable energy targets for 2030 to the Energy Ministry, mapping open land reserves, available rooftops and other potential surfaces such as reservoirs, fishponds and islands at highway interchanges that can be used for solar panels, considering how to expand the grid and where to put cables, examining storage options, overall costs, and more.

Shofrony is confident that Israel will reach its 2020 target of generating 10% of electricity from renewables, mainly solar energy, up from just 4% at the end of last year. This is partly thanks to response to a campaign in July run by the Electricity Authority and Energy Ministry to encourage Israelis to put solar panels on residential roofs. Today, banks will give 100% loans.

Israel can be 100% solar by 2015

Both the Environmental Protection Ministry and Electricity Authority are benefiting from research by Dr. Shahar Dolev of the Israel Energy Forum, which researches energy efficiency and sustainable energy policy. Dolev is currently heading a team of energy professionals set up within the framework of the Heschel Center for Sustainability.

Dr Shahar Dolev, research director at the Israel Energy Forum. (YouTube screenshot)

His team is already able to show that Israel can move to 100% renewable energy, 24/7, by 2050, without touching a centimeter of open landscape. This can be achieved by installing panels on land and other surfaces that are already in use for something.

Dolev’s team’s model also suggests that by 2030, Israel could move a good way toward providing 40% of its power from solar energy for a significant number of days and most nights.

Last week, the National Council for Planning and Construction updated the national outline plan for photovoltaic solar facilities to cut red tape and speed up the spread of new installations.

Meanwhile, public pressure to move from gas to renewables is growing. Recently, more than a 100 leading scientists and 100 heads of local government environment committees called on Steinitz to review his plans for natural gas and instead invest more in renewable energy. In their letter, the scientists warned, “As natural gas power plants will last for many years, facts are being established on the ground that will commit [the country] to an outdated form of energy for years to come.”

Turning to the law

In Israel, the courts have begun to side with the public on environmental issues. In July, the Supreme Court ruled that the planning process for the expansion of the Bazan oil refineries in the Haifa Bay had been defective and should be sent back to the National Council for Planning and Construction.

Soon afterwards, Adam Teva V’Din won a Haifa District Court ruling that the Dead Sea Works could not continue to pump Dead Sea water for mineral extraction without a license. The court slapped a six-month deadline on the Water Authority to compile such a license and release it for public comment.

The Dead Sea Works factory – a business unit of ICL Fertilizers, the world’s fourth largest producer and supplier of potash products, Feb 1 2012. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Adam Teva V’Din, which was involved in both the above court cases, believes that the best way to ensure the implementation of climate policy is not through government decisions, as has been the case to date (with the exception of the Clean Air Act), but to anchor it in legislation. That was the subject of a paper it issued last month and a conference it held on law and the environment.

“There is no explicit climate legislation in Israel, no modern energy law that can support the transition of the carbon economy to a reduced carbon economy, no systemic legislation that requires consideration of environmental issues in a decision-making system — as there has been in the US, for example, since the 1970s,” the Adam Teva V’Din paper said. “Most of the relevant laws that do exist are out of date and if they have been amended still do not address the climate-related needs of the 21st century.”

The organization called for climate legislation similar to that which already exists in 140 countries, including Britain, Ireland, Kenya, Sweden and Peru. “Effective framework legislation forces governments to relate to targets, processes and institutional responsibility – clarifying who is responsible for implementing climate policy, providing tools (budget and powers) for carrying out the task and creating mechanisms for parliamentary and public oversight.”

The paper goes on “The Israeli government must undergo a profound change of mindset, to stop seeing the issue of climate as a marginal one that is the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment. Reductions must be determined for greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change preparedness and climate resilience must be seen as a national strategic target of the highest order, and this should be translated into policy, legislation, budget and, most importantly, implementation in the field.”

Sinaia Netanyahu, former Chief Scientist at the Environmental Protection Ministry. (Government Press Office)

Sinaia Netanyahu, former Environmental Protection Ministry chief scientist, disagrees.

“Climate policy must be robust and flexible,” she told The Times of Israel. “It should consist of an economic incentive system. Under the Paris Agreement, nations must commit every five years to more ambitious mitigation goals. Law is a rigid tool so it is less suited to the actions that are needed.”

As governments do not pass legislation that they do not want, and tend to cash-starve existing laws that they do not like, the important question is whether the next government of Israel will have the vision and political will to take climate change seriously.

Once a new government forms, perhaps after the country’s expected third election in a year, will Israel set its sights on a truly cleaner future?

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