Utter failure: Report blasts Israel's climate performance

The blaze in the Jerusalem Hills, August 2021 Credit: Boris Kripak, Israel Nature and Park Authority
The blaze in the Jerusalem Hills, August 2021 Credit: Boris Kripak, Israel Nature and Park Authority

In a damning report, the State Comptroller describes the Israeli government's progress on its modest goals set under the Paris Agreement as ranging "from lagging to zero."

A severe report released by the State Comptroller today points to substantial failure to face up to the climate crisis, and to the non-implementation of a long series of plans for dealing with the crisis and on switching to renewable energy sources in Israel. The report comes just a few days before Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is due to fly to the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, where he will have to present to the world the actions Israel has taken to implement the Paris Agreement adopted at the previous conference in 2015.

The worsening of extreme climatic events, alongside changes in climate patterns, are liable to cause substantial damage to the Israeli economy and present "a risk to Israel's national security in a range of areas," the Comptroller's report states. But contrary to the stipulations of government decisions passed in 2009 and 2018, Israel has no feasible, budgeted, national plan of action to prepare for climate change.

84% of the public bodies examined by the State Comptroller have no plan whatsoever for dealing with the climate crisis, and have not budgeted action necessary in this area. 89% have not worked with the Ministry of Finance to advance programs on the matter, and 77% have not mapped out the risks arising from climate change and its likely impact on their activity.

Warning light

Israel, which is in a high-risk region, is exposed to significant effects from climate change, but the matter has been almost completely ignored over the years. Over 700 pages, the State Comptroller's Office auditors survey a variety of matters relating to dozens of government ministries and government and public agencies, among them switching to renewable energy, action to reduce greenhouse gases, and adaptation to the unavoidable results of the climate crisis. The report exposes Israel's lack of readiness, and the failure to carry out or budget the many plans that previous governments have announced in the past. In the words of State Comptroller Matanyahu Engelman, "the data in the report represent a warning light": Israel is not prepared for the climate crisis and no change has yet taken place in government policy on the matter.

Unrecognized risks

Although there is a fear of substantial damage to national infrastructures in Israel from climate change (among other things to desalination installations and mass transit systems), up to now it has not been recognized as a strategic national threat, and Israel's National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA) has yet to include climate change on its map of threats to the nation.

Whereas in most countries, for two decades, national-strategic readiness programs have been carried out at the level of specific sectors to deal with the crisis, Israel is one of twenty countries that has no budgeted national plan. As for manpower, just four civil servants (out of 83,000) are dedicated to dealing with climate change.

In 2018, a climate change readiness administration was set up in Israel. It was supposed to formulate, coordinate, disseminate and implement national policy in this area. No powers were given to it to carry out its task, however, and it operates without a budget and without designated manpower. In the absence of a budget, no research activities have been carried out that are critical to effective preparedness, such as risk analysis and economic assessments. Of 278 tasks mentioned in the government decision on preparedness for climate change, only 16% are included in ministerial work plans.

Although the scientific work that preceded the formation of the administration, and also the government's decisions, found that there was a need for a pan-ministerial consultative scientific committee and an expert information center for risk assessment, the administration operates without these bodies having been set up, and without the scientific and national information vital for its work.

Even though climatic knowledge, such as of the likelihood of floods in specific locations and in general, is essential for decision making, in the absence of a budget no national center for climate simulation has been set up in the Israel Meteorological Service, despite the government's decision of 2018. Without an improvement in the technological capabilities of the Meteorological Service, public bodies in Israel will have difficulty in assessing the future climate trends that will affect them, and government action will not keep up with the actual impact of the climate crisis and extreme events on sectors of the economy and on the population in different areas of the country.

The State Comptroller puts together a long list of recommendations for the various ministries and the government. But in a week in which the government announced its "100 Points" program, most of them plans announced and even budgeted in the past, with no target date or road map for execution, the question arises, what could be different this time around?

Engelman stresses that climate change makes fundamental structural reforms necessary, and quickly. This complexity cannot be managed part-time in addition to another function of civil servants at the Ministry of Environmental Protection. "It is recommended that the government should assign the treatment of this matter and its day-to-day management to a permanent, designated body with executive and decision-making powers," the Comptroller states. The report proposes the formation of a permanent executive staff, an executive administration or climate cabinet, "with the ability to set policy and implement it, and coordinate the government's work, and whose policies and decisions will be mandatory for government ministries."

Failure to achieve Paris Agreement goals

For all Israel's small size, its large population, amounting to some 9.3 million, means that it emits greenhouse gases on the scale of a medium-size country. Although its emissions per capita are declining, among the OECD countries Israel is ranked in the upper third of the countries with the highest emissions per capita. The country has, however, set relatively unambitious goals for reducing emissions, and for years has taken none of the steps required to achieve them.

Unlike the OECD countries, Israel set a greenhouse gas emissions reduction target per capita only, and not absolute goals, meaning that its total emissions could continue to rise as its population grew. And so, in the period 2015-2020, Israel's greenhouse gas emissions actually increased. The goal that it set is expected to lead to a 103% increase in absolute terms in comparison with 1990 and a 12% increase in comparison with 2005. The goals of the other countries surveyed (Switzerland, the EU, Canada, the US, Mexico, and South Korea) were expected to lead to an average reduction in emissions of 32%.

Israel has not achieved the goals that it set under the Paris Agreement. "Progress in achieving all the sectoral goals ranges from lagging to zero," the State Comptroller's report says. Directives in the government decisions of 2015 and 2016 in areas such as green taxation, energy efficiency, encouragement of travel on public transport, and removal of bureaucratic obstacles to renewable energy, have not been carried out since the decisions were passed. So, for example, the target of reducing travel by private vehicle by 20% actually turned into an increase of 12 billion kilometers traveled in 2019 in comparison with 2015, and no detailed plan exists for reducing travel in private vehicles, as called for by the government decision of 2016.

Israel has failed on energy as well. The efficiency target of 20% set in 2008 was only 62% achieved. Of NIS 800 million shekels allocated to this item in the government decision, only NIS 300 million was utilized. The state did not meet the target it set for itself in 2009 for 2020, of 10% of electricity consumed being produced from renewable sources, and reached only 6.1% by the end of 2020.

Israel has not invested in renewable energy infrastructure as other countries have in order to reach their targets. According to the OECD, from around 1997, investment in infrastructure in Israel has been lower than the average for the OECD countries. For 2016, investment in energy infrastructure in Israel is estimated at 2% of GDP, 75% below the OECD average.

New targets inadequate

The Comptroller found that a multiplicity of legislative and administrative powers, conflict between different ministries' targets, and a built-in gap between responsibility and authority, create inherent difficulty in making progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Ministries give priority to goals that are at the core of their ministerial responsibility over reducing emissions (except for the Ministry of Environmental Protection). The result is that the climate crisis and emission targets have been pushed down the lists of ministries' priorities for years, in favor of other targets, at the stage of setting goals, at the budgeting stage, and in implementation.

Even the new goals that Israel set for itself for 2030 are low. According to the government decision, by 2030, 30% of the power consumed in Israel will be from clean sources. This compares with goals ranging between 40% and 100% in the OECD countries and in other countries surveyed. Israel's target is the lowest in the OECD.

Is the target Israel set the maximum possible? According to the Comptroller, the Electricity Authority's examination of the matter was restricted to 30% from renewable sources. It did not examine the full potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Furthermore, the decision to set a 30% target was made by the Ministry of National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources together with the Electricity Authority, without involving other relevant agencies.

To this day, the Ministry of National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources has not set a target for producing electricity from renewable resources for 2050. "Leaving the mix at 70% energy from natural gas after 2030 without setting renewable energy targets for 2050 makes for a basis for planning, development and investment aimed at continued development of the natural gas industry in Israel, and is liable to retard the future transition to a low-carbon economy. Promotion of fossil fuels is not consistent with the government's declared policy for more than a decade of curtailing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants. While the government is waging a campaign on climate change and for clean air, it is also promoting a policy of 'exhausting the potential' of resources, which needs to be adapted to the national effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," the Comptroller's report states.

The Ministry of National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources preferred not to set renewable energy targets, but rather to wait for technological developments that would facilitate carbon capture from the air. Yet, according to the Comptroller, a cost estimate that was carried out found that in each of the years 2030, 2040, and 2050, the scenario skewed towards non-solar power technologies (such as carbon capture) was the costliest, while the scenario skewed towards solar energy in 2050 - the relevant target year for the strategy for transitioning to a low-carbon economy - was the least costly of all the scenarios, estimated at NIS 49.2 billion, versus a non-solar scenario estimated at NIS 56.9 billion. The Ministry of National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources has, however, not reviewed the scenarios, and did not present implementation cost estimates in the road map that it published.

The report gives a favorable mention to the fact that between 2012 and 2018 the use of coal to generate electricity fell by 29%, and between 2018 and 2020 there was a further decline of 4%. This lead to a decline in air pollution and to some decline in carbon emissions. This decline is the main reason for the decline in greenhouse gas emissions per capita, even though in absolute terms emissions in Israel grew. Continued implementation of this policy will lead to an estimated reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of some nine million tonnes by 2025 and 17 million tonnes by 2035.

Switching to a low-carbon economy could boost GDP

Economic analyses surveyed in the report show that unless Israel takes steps to slow climate change, the economic damage from climate change will be greater than the cost to the economy of reducing emissions. Countries that cut greenhouse gas emissions derive clear benefits, and the Israeli economy is capable of achieving substantial reduction in emissions without harming its long-term growth goals, and in a general cost-benefit analysis, the switch to a low-carbon economy could lead to a rise in GDP and greater social welfare.

So far, however, no government economic agency or body responsible for macro-economic forecasting in Israel has carried out a national estimate on the economic damage and impacts that climate change will cause under the various scenarios. In addition, the Ministry of Economy and Industry and the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services have not examined the consequences of the climate crisis and the expected changes in the labor market as a result of a switch to a low-carbon economy.

Environmental pollution causes 2,500 deaths in Israel annually, but the national plan for health and the environment called for by the government in March 2016 was never brought before the government for approval, and its drafting was halted in 2018. The Ministry of Health examined certain steps on health and the environment, but this did not lead to policy measures to reduce the health risk, as the 2016 government decision required. That decision was aimed at promoting steps to improve the quality of life of residents of the state of Israel and the coming generations and to preserve their health.

Startup nation? Not in climate-tech

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently met US president Joe Biden. At their meeting, which also dealt with climate matters, Bennett boasted about Israel's cleantech and food-tech industries, and presented Israel as the startup nation of the climate. But according to the State Comptroller's report, the reality is different. In 2018, investment by Israel's Innovation Authority in energy, water, the environment, and sustainability was 4% of its total investments, the third lowest percentage for the sectors covered.

Similarly, comparative figures for OECD countries show that, in climate-related technologies, Israel is at the bottom of the ladder with three other countries (South Africa, Latvia, and Ireland).

Response by the Ministry of Environmental Protection: "The ministry has brought it about that the country's goals will be deepened, and they now incorporate lower emissions in 2030 and a change in trend. The ministry believes that the potential reduction that the State of Israel could achieve is even greater. The conclusions and recommendations of the report receive a broad response in the national implementation plan for dealing with the climate crisis, the 100 Points program, that the ministry is currently introducing."

Response by the Ministry of National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources: "The only renewable energy source in Israel is solar energy, and we live in a country short of land area, crowded, and an energy island. Unlike other OECD countries, it has no other renewable energy sources, such as hydro, wind, and so on. The more that the ministry and its partners succeeds in accelerating the switch to renewable energy, the more Israel will be able to deepen its renewables goals for 2030. The ministry will work this year towards setting long-term renewables goals. The goals for reducing emissions by 2050 will not, de facto, allow substantial expansion in the use of natural gas without treating emissions. The Ministry of National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources was the first to set clear goals for introducing electric vehicles into Israel."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on October 27, 2021.

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

The blaze in the Jerusalem Hills, August 2021 Credit: Boris Kripak, Israel Nature and Park Authority
The blaze in the Jerusalem Hills, August 2021 Credit: Boris Kripak, Israel Nature and Park Authority
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