What role is Israel playing as the world heats up and CO2 reaches record levels?
Interview'Only Israel can say its population won't die of thirst'

What role is Israel playing as the world heats up and CO2 reaches record levels?

Climate change envoy says Israel has negligible impact on planetary destruction, but is reducing pollution, is world water use champion, pioneers alternatives to plastic and more

Sue Surkes

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

Israelis take part in a protest demanding action on climate change, Tel Aviv, April 27, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israelis take part in a protest demanding action on climate change, Tel Aviv, April 27, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The planet is getting hotter at a rate unparalleled in two millennia, and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are at their highest in 3 million years. We have entered a new Anthropocene era (anthropo referring to human), a Sixth Extinction, in which humankind is killing off species at a rate 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural ones.

So is there any good news?

The Times of Israel spoke to Yacov Hadas-Handelsman, Special Envoy for Sustainability and Climate change at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the interview.

Are things really as bad as they sound and what can Israel contribute in terms of solutions?

Yacov Hadas-Handelsman: We just returned from New York (from the annual United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development) where we presented our sustainability report, about which the Prime Minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] was enthusiastic. (At the forum, the Israeli delegation showed the below video featuring Israeli-Arab journalist Lucy Aharish.)

Just before we presented it, we managed to secure a government decision that from the next government [after elections on September 17], all strategic planning will have to be compatible with the relevant sustainable development goals. By anchoring this in official government policy, we’ve done more than many other countries.

Sustainability has to be a way of life, which connects and combines the environment, the economy and society. Today, we are guided by the UN’s list of Sustainable Development Goals (originally developed by the OECD) which aims to achieve sustainable development by 2030 worldwide via 17 goals and 169 targets. [The program is voluntary.]

Our report looks at where we are now and where we want to get to. I headed the interministerial team that wrote it, together with Galit Cohen, Senior Deputy Director for Planning, Policy and Strategy at the Ministry of Environmental Protection. Our report is the thickest and, I’ve been told, the most critical, which shows we are serious. We consulted with all stakeholders in its preparation, including non-governmental ones.

Israel’s contribution to global warming and environmental problems worldwide is negligible because we are so small. But in terms of meeting the challenge of global warming, the Israeli government decided in July 2018 (Decision 4079) to move forward with the implementation of a National Climate Change Preparedness and Adaptation Program. We are reducing the amount of polluting materials.

I know that the Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz has very ambitious proposals to have all public transport running on electricity by 2025, for example. By 2030, he intends to ban the import of vehicles that are solely fuel-driven. Over the past three years, we’ve reduced coal use by around a quarter. We’ve become part of the international Powering Past Coal Alliance. It’s true that we haven’t yet moved to renewable energy because we’re using more natural gas. But in life, everything’s relative.

Yacov Hadas-Handelsman, Special Envoy for Sustainability and Climate change at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (YouTube screenshot)

Pressure is coming from businesses. Israel’s economy is export-driven and business people understand that you need to meet certain standards to work in countries which respect values such as fair trade and the way companies treat their employees. The new world agenda also means new regulations. So, for example, the Ministry of Economy is issuing new regulations to encourage a circular economy (which aims to minimize waste and make the most of resources).

How bad is the situation globally?

I am not a scientist. But I can say that the Israeli mind creates solutions. Israel is the only country that can say its population will not die of thirst. Today, 70 to 75 percent of our water comes from desalination, which through new technology, no longer produces environmentally damaging brine and which now operates on gas rather than coal. Our plants produce around 600 million cubic meters (21.2 billion cubic feet) of desalinated water annually. Minister Steinitz wants to double this amount in ten years to sell water to our neighbors and to restore water to nature — to the Sea of Galilee, the underground aquifers, etc., where natural sources are drying up.

We are the best users of available water resources. We recycle most of our sewage water. How many people know that over the past 20 years, we’ve built a new national carrier of recycled sewage water from the Dan Region Wastewater Treatment Plant to the Negev desert? In Israel, we only lose an average of 3-8% of our water resources, thanks to activities such as recycling and maintaining pipes to prevent leakage. We even use the brackish water under the Negev Desert to produce excellent wine and olive oil.

General view of Israel's largest desalination plant on the Mediterranean Sea, in Ashdod (Photo credit: Edi Israel /Flash90)
General view of Israel’s largest desalination plant on the Mediterranean Sea, in Ashdod (Edi Israel /Flash90)

People like to point to Germany as a model for sustainability. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the Germans are using a lot of Israeli innovation. The solar energy is an obvious one. We are also working with all the German car companies on aspects such as programming, systems protection and battery improvement.

To what extent is there an awareness of the connection between climate change, social breakdown, migration and security?

People are aware of this both in Israel and in the world.

Today there are communities in the world that face social breakdown because of water shortages. Take the mass exodus from Syria to Turkey. People forget that from 2006, before the civil war, there was a terrible drought that fueled migration.

Minister Steinitz frequently flies to regional conferences. We cooperate with our neighbors in fields such as water and natural gas. We have contracts to supply natural gas to Jordan and the Palestinians.

But we don’t have any regional partners with whom to exchange carbon credits (where a country or body is allowed to produce a certain amount of carbon emissions and trade the emissions it does not use).

Israeli politicians don’t talk about environmental issues very much and Israeli society seems to lag behind Europe and the US on environmental awareness. Do you see change?

We’re voting with our feet. I think there’s been a buzz in Israel over the last couple of years regarding awareness of global warming. Young people are demanding action on climate change and following (the Swedish teenage climate activist) Greta Thunberg. There is more impact investing [where the aim is to generate a financial return together with a measurable, beneficial social or environmental impact]. There are now Israeli investment houses that will not put money into certain fields of business, not out of charity but because they realize it’s the best way to make money.

Look at the banks and the big companies. They issue annual sustainability reports today alongside their financial reports because the big international accounting firms tell them that that’s what they have to do.

Israelis take part at a protest march to demand immediate action on climate change in Tel Aviv on March 29, 2019. (Adam Shuldman/Flash90)

But it’s a slow process. Take single-use plastic. The UN has declared itself single-use plastic free. You sit and drink from a straw made of paper. There are companies in Israel trying to develop alternatives to plastic.

It’s easy to criticize government for the things it hasn’t done. But these issues are very complex. Take genetically modified food. The European Union has strict regulations on the import of GM food, but GM has great potential for reducing world hunger. Some European airlines want to cut their emissions by using biofuel, but industrial production for biofuel cuts the supply of crops such as corn for food, for example, leading to price rises. It’s not a zero sum game.

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