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Israel slips to 29th worldwide in biennial environmental performance index

Nation still ranks fairly well in Yale University report, but scores particularly badly on biodiversity and habitat

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

Two foxes peer out of the vegetation in the Jerusalem area, May 27, 2020. (Dudu Ben Or, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
Two foxes peer out of the vegetation in the Jerusalem area, May 27, 2020. (Dudu Ben Or, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Israel slipped 10 places in a key index rating its performance on environmental issues, but is still ranked among the top 30 countries globally, Yale University said last week.

The country dropped from 19th position to 29th out of 180 countries, in the biennial Environmental Performance Index, which ranks countries on environmental health and ecosystem vitality.

Israel compares well with other developed nations on issues such as environmental health in general, composed of air quality (25th), sanitation and drinking water (22nd), and exposure to lead (13th),  and it is way ahead of the developed world on the state of its fisheries, where it comes in 9th.

However it fares poorly (64th) on progress to combat global climate change, particularly when it comes to emissions of methane (147th) and black carbon (104th).

And it is positioned way down the list on biodiversity and habitat, where it is in 122nd position, just above Bangaldesh and Sudan.

A male acacia gazelle with a new fawn. (Eran Hyams, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

On waste management, which the new Environmental Protection Minister, Gila Gamliel is currently reviewing, Israel comes in at 47th place, behind poorer countries such as Mexico, Ukraine, Belarus and Algeria.

The prestigious Environmental Performance Index, published Thursday, uses 32 performance indicators, across 11 issue categories, to provide a scorecard that can help policymakers and the public assess how well their countries are doing.

Air pollution

On air pollution, Israel comes in at 25th position — largely due to its high ranking on exposure to household fuels (Israelis tend not to cook on open fires, for example) and its relatively high score on exposure to small particulate matter (28th position). Dragging it down is life years lost to ground-level ozone, where it comes 93rd.

File: At least 1,000 activists and Haifa area residents crowd the Kiryat Haim suburb to protest Health Ministry findings that linked heightened cancer rates in the city with high levels of air pollution, May 3, 2015 (Screen capture: Facebook)

Ground-level ozone is a colorless gas known as a secondary pollutant because it is produced when two primary pollutants — nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)  — mixtures of organic substances containing mainly carbon and hydrogen — react in sunlight and stagnant air, forming smog, which can damage the lungs of children, asthma sufferers and people who work out of doors.

Climate change

On climate change, Israel is faring much worse.

On the specific category of per capita greenhouse gas emissions, the index places Israel in an unenviable 139th position, but uses data for this indicator from 2017, before Israel moved further to replace coal with natural gas.

However, on progress to combat global climate change, it comes in 64th position, behind poorer, neighboring countries such as Jordan, Cyprus, and Greece.

Going into more detailed indicators on climate change, Israel is in the top third (48th position) of performers on carbon dioxide emissions, but comes a lowly 147th place on methane emissions, below countries such as Burkino Faso, Uganda and Paraguay, and even polluting China.

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)

Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, occurs naturally but is also caused by human activities, such as burning of fossil fuels (especially natural gas), waste sent to landfill, and animal husbandry. With the government determined to make maximum use of its natural gas finds off the Mediterranean coast, methane emissions from energy production are only likely to increase in the coming years until natural gas is replaced by renewable energy.

On emissions of black carbon, Israel is in 104th  position. Black carbon is produced both naturally and by human activity as a result of the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass (organic material that comes from plants and animals), stays in the atmosphere for just a short while but is thought, nevertheless, to be a major contributor to climate warming.

The country also comes just 91st on emissions of nitrous oxide, a subgroup of nitrogen oxides better known as laughing gas, which contribute to acid rain and global warming, help cause or worsen respiratory diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis and — when mixed with volatile organic compounds during periods of sunlight — form smog.

That said, Israel comes 24th on an indicator that measures progress on managing NOx and SO2. The latter refers to sulphur dioxides, exposure to which irritates the respiratory system.

Biodiversity and Ecosystems

Israel falls into 122nd position on biodiversity (the diversity of living things) and habitat.

On its progress toward achieving the Convention on Natural Diversity targets of 17% protection for all terrestrial biomes (land-based communities of flora and fauna) within its own borders, it ranked 93rd.

Swamps, wetland habitats which once covered much of northern Israel, are preserved at the Ein Afek Nature Reserve north of Haifa. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

On protecting marine areas, Israel is positioned at 110, and — as a very small country undergoing rapid population growth and urban develoment —  it comes in at a low 112th place on the proportion of suitable habitat remaining intact for each species relative to a baseline set in the year 2001.

It ranks 99th on a new indicator, the Biodiversity Habitat Index, which estimates the effects of habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation on the expected retention of terrestrial biodiversity, and it is 65th on ecosystem services, defined as loss of tree cover, grassland and wetland.

Water and Agriculture

As a world leader in the recycling of sewage, Israel comes in at a respectable 18th position on wastewater treatment. But it fares poorly (106th position) on agriculture’s efforts to minimize the seepage of nitrogen, used in chemical fertilizers, into the environment, especially water sources. Among other impacts, nitrogen pollution has been identified as a threat to Israel’s Red Sea corals.

Waste management

On managing solid waste and its direct impact on the environment and public health, Israel comes in 47th position, behind poorer countries such as Mexico, Ukraine, Belarus and Algeria.

Prof. Alon Tal, chair of the Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy and a veteran environmental activist, said, “Failing grades in both climate change and biodiversity protection reflects the policies of a government that even during years of unprecedented economic prosperity, made sure that Israel’s environment would enjoy no environmental dividend.  Indeed, government policies locked the environmental ministry into its modest dimensions and budgets, systematically preventing critical climate change legislation and an important law to formalize biodiversity monitoring.”

Prof Alon Tal pictured standing above the Bokek stream near the Dead Sea. (Courtesy)

He added, “Yale’s objective index flies in the face of the self-congratulatory bluster of our Prime Minister and our former environmental minister….Israel’s Environmental Ministry suffers from inadequate staff professionalism, a conspicuously unfilled post of Chief Scientist and a sustained absence of political will.  Is it any wonder that our country’s environmental grade has moved from mediocre to failing?”

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