State comptroller chides government, PM for talk but little action on climate change

Report says despite 47 government decisions in 16 years, progress marked by ‘functional stagnation’; fossil fuel subsidies far exceed funds for emissions cuts, climate preparation

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Firefighters try to extinguish a forest fire raging near moshav Mesilat Zion, September 28, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Illustrative: Firefighters try to extinguish a forest fire raging near Moshav Mesilat Zion, September 28, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

A report by the State Comptroller’s Office released Tuesday castigated successive Israel governments for failing to act meaningfully on climate change, saying talk has far outweighed action.

Following up on more than 100 points raised in a previous report issued by his office in 2021, Matanyahu Englman found that most deficiencies highlighted then had only been partially rectified, if at all.

He said that despite multiple declarations and government resolutions, there had been little progress since the last report was published.

“In the last 16 years, 47 government decisions related to addressing the challenges of climate change were made, but Israel has not shown significant improvement in achieving its national climate objectives,” the comptroller wrote.

In painting what he called an “alarming” picture of “functional stagnation,” he said the key things missing were government attention and leadership, a strong climate law, comprehensive government risk management, and implementation of decisions.

He said the successive governments and their leaders — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for 15 of the past 16 years — had performed poorly in reducing global warming emissions, preparing for the consequences of climate change, managing economic and financial aspects of the crisis, and demonstrating the required levels of governance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris on November 30, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

“All this stands in stark contrast to the inherent risks posed by climate change, which threaten our very existence,” Englman warned.

As a country situated in a climate hotspot, where global warming is happening faster than the global average, Israel could expect reduced agricultural yields, food and water shortages, and negative impacts on commodities and energy supply, ultimately resulting in global price increases, Englman said.

Infrastructure that is already overloaded would be vulnerable to damage, including roads, desalination stations, energy facilities, and water and sewage systems, with extreme weather events potentially leading to their collapse.

File: In this August 20, 2013, file photo, Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border point in Dahuk, Iraq. Top scientists are saying that climate change will complicate and worsen existing global security problems, such as civil wars, strife between nations and refugees. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Extreme heatwaves and severe weather patterns could lead to geopolitical instability, regional conflicts over essential natural resources such as water and food, wars, and waves of refugees from neighboring countries where living conditions were deteriorating, he further warned.

A ‘red flag’ for the government and PM

“The findings of this follow-up audit serve as an additional red flag for the government and the prime minister,” Englman said. “The absence of substantive corrective action regarding Israel’s conduct on climate change under the leadership of the government and its head poses a risk that is relevant both to the current generation and those to come.”

The report paints a picture of a government that has not internalized the risks of climate change and largely continues with business as usual.

Special criticism is leveled at the Finance Ministry which, according to the report, is inactive at best, and often obstructive.

Despite the recommendations of the 2021 State Comptroller’s report, there was still no single governmental body with the authority to shepherd all ministries and other state bodies toward realizing government targets, the report went on. There was no climate law, no carbon tax, no government risk management, no holistic budgetary framework for climate policies, and insufficient investment to upgrade the electricity grid to allow for expanding the use of renewable energy.

Instead, roughly NIS 4 billion (just over $1 billion) was being spent annually to subsidize fossil fuels, with such support steadily rising.

Figures for 2022-2023 were expected to rise even further, thanks to the government’s cancellation of the coal tax and discount on the gasoline tax. Together, these were losing the Treasury a combined NIS 3.5 billion ($950 million) per year.

Coal stacks at the Orot Rabin power station in Hadera, central Israel, August 28, 2008. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

The NIS 32 billion ($8.7 billion) lost to state revenues from 2015 to 2022 by subsidies to fossil fuels was 10.6 times the amount approved over those years for climate change-related investment and 33 times the amount that was actually spent (NIS 988 million, or $268 million).

According to Englman, “These gaps starkly reflect the priorities of the governments during those years – multiple declarations of setting climate goals without the necessary resource allocation to achieve them, alongside continued funding policies that undermine these goals.”

Lagging behind targets

Israel is lagging behind its own targets to reduce global warming gas emissions.

According to the report, the government now expects to reduce emissions by 12% by 2030, rather than the 27% it promised the United Nations in August 2021.

It was planning to generate 19% of power from renewable sources by 2030, down from an original 30%, with emissions from electricity forecast to decline by 21% rather than the planned 30% — a target that would still have put it in bottom place among OECD countries.

Sheep graze near a solar installation on the banks of the Bnei Israel water reservoir in Hispin, on the Golan Heights, northern Israel, on December 8, 2023. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

In other sectors, a cut of 19% in emissions from waste was now forecast for 2030 compared to 2015 (the target was 47%), while an original goal to cut industrial emissions by 30% by 2030 had been reduced to 17%.

There was still no target for renewable energy in 2050, despite a recommendation in the State Comptroller’s 2021 report, and targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture and construction sectors had not been established.

A failure to lead

The Finance Ministry comes in for much criticism for what the report deems its old-fashioned view that climate change is an environmental matter rather than a national economic one.

File: State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman at a Knesset committee meeting on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The ministry has not conducted any assessments on the costs to the Israeli economy of adapting to climate change or of achieving emissions reduction targets by 2050.

Motivated by a fear of being sued for non-realization of climate targets, it has resisted anchoring any targets in a Climate Law, preferring to employ government decisions that cast targets merely as goals to aspire to, the report went on.

A “declarative” climate law that is in the works will “serve primarily to present Israel to the world as having a climate law, nothing more,” the report continued, adding that the current draft lacked any mechanism to guarantee long-term budgeting. “Indeed, the wording of the new climate bill proposal [approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation in September 2023] allows almost unlimited flexibility for the government in a way that could undermine Israel’s commitment to meeting its targets.”

No carbon tax

After 13 years of discussions, the government passed a resolution on carbon pricing in 2021 but has not yet implemented it.

In his 2021 report, the State Comptroller recommended reviewing it. He thought the tax — intended to incentivize a move away from fossil fuels — was too low and too limited in the scope of fuels to be taxed. No review was carried out.

The Finance Ministry’s Budgets Department has calculated that non-implementation of the tax will lose the state more than NIS 2.5 billion ($680 million) in 2023, and over NIS 7.5 billion ($2 billion) for the years 2023-2028 (cumulatively).

Non-implementation could also harm Israeli exporters to the European Union, the report warned. The EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism imposes a carbon tax on imports from countries without a carbon pricing mechanism.

Poor progress on preparation

Israel still lacks a national climate change adaptation plan, the State Comptroller found.

More than eight in 10 ministries and other state bodies said they lacked an approved, budgeted plan for climate change, despite a 2018 government resolution mandating such a plan. Only one in 10 had fully funded plans.

One of the Holon Design Museum winners in its urban shade exhibit, titled Cloud Seeding (Luke Tress)

The Environmental Protection Ministry’s Climate Change Adaptation Administration, which had no full-time staff in 2021, now had one person, and a second position was approved in August but had not yet been filled, the report said. Noting much higher staffing rates in other countries with similar units, the State Comptroller found this to be inadequate for the task.

The administration lacked funds as well as teeth, he went on. It had no authority to compel ministries to prepare adaptation plans or report on progress.

The Transportation Ministry had no climate preparedness plan. No budgets had been allocated and no research relevant to the field had been carried out.

The Health Ministry had compiled a plan but had only completed a quarter of the steps listed for lack of budgets and low prioritization.

The Defense Ministry, by contrast, was progressing well with a preparedness plan, the report said, but this had not yet been approved by the IDF chief of staff, nor integrated into the army’s multi-year plan.

Emissions on the rise

While other developed countries were reducing emissions, Israel’s increased by 1% between 2015 and 2022, mainly due to an increase in emissions in the transportation, industrial, and construction sectors, the report said.

Congestion along Route 20’s Tel Aviv section, December 2, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In the transportation sector, a 6% increase in emissions was expected — almost double the limit set by a government resolution of 3.3%. Private vehicle mileage was now expected to drop by 15% by 2030, instead of the planned 20%.

Israel was also way behind on the introduction of electric vehicles, the report said. Its 2030 aim was to have EVs comprising 25% of all vehicles by the end of the decade, but in 2022, the figure stood at just over 1%.

By April 2023, the Energy Ministry had funded 1,460 private EV charging stations out of a target of 2,500, with only 79 of those capable of fast or ultra-fast charging.

Still using coal

According to the report, the real (external) cost of emissions from central Israel’s Orot Rabin Power Station, which continues to use some coal, reached NIS 3.39 billion (just over $920 million) in 2022.

External costs are those for which the producer does not pay, such as the costs to public health and the environment of pollution.

View of the Orot Rabin power plant at Sdot Yam beach, central Israel, April 11, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Plans to ceasing using coal at the power station were over a year late, and against a backdrop of global coal shortages the increased use of high-sulfur coal had led to even higher emissions and pollution than before, the comptroller found.

As coal prices rose, Israeli consumers saw a 19% hike in electricity bills between May 2022 and January 2023.

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