Bennett aims to make Israel a climate-tech leader

Naftali Bennett credit: Marc Israel Sellem, Jerusalem Post

As the prime minister flies to COP26 in Glasgow, "Globes" examines his climate crisis agenda.

At the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, behind closed doors and at the conference plenum, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will have to outline the direction in which he intends to take his country in order to deal with one of the greatest threats that it faces. He will also have to provide explanations about the legacy he has received from past governments: in a report released last week, Israel's State Comptroller described the country's progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change as "ranging from lagging to zero." The State Comptroller described a decade of neglect. Out of a long list of well-publicized government decisions, only 15% were actually carried out.

Bennett knows that he will not be able to boast of achievements in Glasgow, or of ambitious goals enshrined in legislation or in plans in the making. Israel missed its previous, modest targets. Two months ago, his young government approved a plan for a low-carbon economy that had mainly been formulated under the previous government but which underwent certain improvements, but it too does not set ambitious targets for reaching zero emissions such as many other countries have set. Bennett understands that the goals are inadequate, and after studying the matter in depth in the past few months, he aspires to upgrade them. After working with the Ministry of National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources, he will announce at COP26 that Israel will aim at net-zero emissions by 2050.

It does not look at this stage as though the government will declare a national climate emergency. A Prime Minister's Office source said that there would be no impractical, populistic declarations. The climate bill is also not yet ripe for legislation, because of inter-ministerial disputes, and will require further discussion within the government.

Climate change was an unfamiliar subject for Bennett until he became prime minister. In the past few months, he has invested time in studying it. He has held meetings with professionals in the field, started to map out the obstacles to progress, and sketched his path to involvement in the issue. Bennett seeks to turn the Prime Minister's Office into a key factor in dealing with the climate crisis, whether in the painstaking work of removing bureaucratic obstacles to renewable energy resources, or technological innovation, or taking over areas of responsibility, out of the realization that the matter is one of life and death, or directing the government to giving the issue high priority insofar as it affects each ministry.

On what does Bennett's plan for dealing with the issue rest? Prime Minister's Office director general Yair Pines told "Globes": "The prime minister has defined climate as a top priority matter in the government's work. The Prime Minister's Office is therefore promoting policy on the issue on three main tracks: preparedness for extreme climatic conditions; intense work on green infrastructure projects up to the execution stage, in order for us to meet emissions targets; and promoting technological innovation in fields connected to climate in order to contribute to the world and, no less importantly, to advance Israel through excellence at an international level in climate-tech. As soon as the Prime Minister saw that more than 50% of the technology required to meet a zero emissions target had yet to be developed, he realized that in this respect Israel had the ability to break through and become the technological pillar of fire that would lead the global fight in the climate crisis."

In practice, Bennett's ministry will take on dealing with life and death issues that require broad consensus between government agencies and on which there has been no progress in recent years. The two first matters under discussion are preventing fires and preventing floods. They have been delegated to inter-ministerial teams, while Bennett's ministry will integrate the work and eventually present a plan to the government for approval.

Energy is one of the Prime Minister's Office's main priorities. Discussions on the matter have been taking place there daily in recent months. Although the 30% target Israel has set for the proportion of power produced from renewable sources by 2030 is considered low by world standards, the obstacles on the ground and the undeveloped infrastructure will make it hard to reach. Realizing this, the Prime Minister's Office has set up teams to deal with removing bureaucratic bottlenecks holding up energy storage solutions, clean transport, agrivoltaics (a team that has a timetable for its tasks), and more. Gantt planning charts will be published to measure progress on each project, and on the land issue, which is slowing progress on solar energy projects, the approach will be more liberal than in the past. A list of specific projects requiring fast progress has been drawn up.

The Prime Minister's Office believes that green energy projects can become engines of economic growth, and give rise to a whole ecosystem around them. On the political and diplomatic front, the aim over the next few months will be to turn Israel from an energy island country into a bridge, among other things through joint photo-voltaic projects with neighboring countries. "The Minister of National Infrastructures, Energy and Water resources and the National Economic Council are expediting staff work with various players in the region to find ways in which we can collaborate on green infrastructure that will boost Israel's energy independence and at the same time strengthen ties with our neighbors. On financing of technological innovation too we are formulating international collaborations. The aim is to turn Israel into a ground breaker in this field," says Pines.

The subject with which Bennett has the strongest affinity is innovation. According to the State Comptroller's report, in 2018, the proportion of public investment by the Innovation Authority that went to projects in energy, water, environment and sustainability was 4%, the third lowest proportion among all the fields covered. Comparative figures for the OECD show that Israel is bottom of the ladder for investment in climate-related technology. The Innovation Authority's own reports show that foreign investors are not rushing to invest in Israeli climate-tech companies. Bennett aspires to go all out on climate innovation and turn Israel into a "sandbox" for entrepreneurship in this area, and an attractive place for related R&D.

The world is progressing towards net-zero emissions by 2050, but countries' declarations are based on technologies that do not yet exist. One of the Israeli government's aims, therefore, is to promote businesses producing climate solutions, and to turn Israel into a pilot country, through removal of bottlenecks and through financial investment. The regulation division in the Prime Minister's Office will become a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs who need assistance vis-à-vis regulators in the climate sector.

Many promises, but a long road

The road to fulfillment of the promises is still long. For now, Israel stands exposed to the climate crisis. Branding it as an "climate-tech country" will do nothing whatever to save its residents from fires, floods, and cities bereft of shade, with a badly planned public space unfit for the challenges of the present and the future. Such branding will also not help to turn its economy into a low-carbon one, and cut its emissions by half in the coming decade. On a conservative estimate, 2,000-2,500 Israelis die annually as a result of air pollution, and every day's delay in switching to clean energy and dealing with industrial pollution costs human lives.

Beyond local interests. what about Israel's participation in the global effort on climate change? There too, the country is backward. Besides failing to meet its targets, Israel also does not take full responsibility for itself. Despite its small size, Israel's emissions are equivalent to those of a medium-size country. In 2019, greenhouse gas emissions per capita in Israel were 8.9 tonnes, 82% higher than the global average, and 36% higher than in the EU. Israel has 0.11% of the world's population but accounts for 0.18% of greenhouse gas emissions.

When he returns to Israel, Bennett will have to sketch a comprehensive, concrete plan that will change the lives of the country's residents, even in the short term. He will face a no less difficult challenge: to convince the public that the change is genuine, and that another decade will not be wasted on words without action. The present government has no time for mistakes or experiments, after a long period in which almost nothing was done, while temperatures continued to rise and the threats grew. At a time when it is clear to the world that the climate crisis is primarily a crisis of leadership, Bennett will have to accept the burden of proof: to gain command of the details in depth, to be involved daily in every relevant matter, and to make decisions with a view to the long term, in an area where real change is vital.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 31, 2021.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2021.

Naftali Bennett credit: Marc Israel Sellem, Jerusalem Post
Naftali Bennett credit: Marc Israel Sellem, Jerusalem Post
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