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Alon Tal

As the Crisis Rages, Israel’s Government Offers an Anemic Climate Law

This coming week, the government will consider approving its proposed climate bill. To be sure, it is a step in the right direction.  But when one takes a closer look, what emerges is a pathetic limp more than a bold stride forward.

As Chair of the Subcommittee for Environment, Climate and Health in the previous Knesset, I conducted hearings on a similar law, forwarded by the “Government of Change”. The bill only passed its first reading in the waning moments before the Knesset was disbanded. The new legislation suffers from the same severe flaws we tried to address: lack of creativity,  evasion of responsibility and total absence of ambition to improve the country’s failed climate policies.

This week I’m wrapping up a course in climate policy at Stanford University that I teach as a visiting professor of sustainability.  I found preparing lectures about what should have been a familiar topic to be surprisingly hard work. That’s because while I was serving in the Knesset, the world was very busy pushing climate policy forward.  It would seem that when harried world leaders stop for a minute to review the data, even they are worried.

Today, 61 countries have adopted carbon taxes of different forms for products and processes.  (New Zealand is even preparing to tax the emissions from its millions of sheep and livestock!). Roughly 80 percent of vehicles sold in Norway last year were electric. In Germany, 46% of the electricity flowing in the grid in 2022 came from renewable sources.  The U.S. has budgeted no less than 369 billion dollars to subsidize  new, low-carbon infrastructure.

The greenhouse gas emission reduction targets adopted by most enlightened countries are significant. They should be achieved during the coming years.  The Danish climate law, passed in 2020 stipulates a 70 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.  The country is already closing in on that goal.  Germany is committed to a 65% reduction by 2030 and 88% by 2040. Sweden: 63%; New Zealand: 50%;   Sadly, the law that the government is considering leaves Israel far behind this vaunted list of countries, whose leaders decided that they are willing to make a meaningful effort to save the planet.

By the way, a 50% emissions reduction is precisely the target that appears in the coalition agreement, that was — to its credit — demanded by the Torah Judaism party.  It is regrettable, that the same political party that knew very well how to demand a cancellation of the tax on single-use plastics, didn’t find the political will to demand implementation of its agreement with the Likud about emissions reduction.  As a result, the best-case scenario that the bill envisions is a mere 30% drop by 2030, leaving Israel at the very very bottom of the OECD.

Moreover, according to the law, if Israel has difficulties in reaching this modest goal – “no problem”: The legislation allows the government to change the “emissions baseline year” by fiat, without any amendments that need Knesset approval.  In other words,  legally, Israel can ignore its modest carbon reduction goals and  flimflam the world.

It is worth noting that Israel is a member of the UN climate convention. Its representatives are very well aware that unequivocal expectations were presented by the convention’s scientific committee in the most recent conference of the parties in Sharm el Sheikh this past fall: developed countries like Israel need to cut emissions by no less than 43% by 2030.

It would seem that the Ministry of Finance dug in its heels at 30% and the environmental ministry capitulated.  But even worse, it is not clear whether the 2030 target will ever be reached: the primary instrument to do so involves “government ministry programs” for emissions reductions. The language of the bill leaves these as voluntary documents: if a minister is favorably inclined, he can prepare one; if he isn’t feeling the impulse, he won’t.

The Minister of Environmental Protection insists on choreographing the entire effort.  That’s understandable. The problem is that over the years, a long litany of perfectly decent Israeli environmental ministers tried to influence the ecological engagement of their fellow cabinet members, with minimal success.  From what we have seen during the past half-year, there is no reason to believe that it will be different this time.

The truth is that even with a lousy climate law, the State of Israel could do a great deal to reduce emissions and catch up with the global effort.  What is stopping Israel from undertaking a spirited campaign to promote PV solar panels on its rooftops or even require them in buildings and parking lots, as parts of Germany have begun to do? After all, this is exactly what a more intrepid government did for rooftop passive, solar hot-water systems 50 years ago.  Or why couldn’t we adopt an emergency plan to improve energy efficiency in buildings? Or implement a dramatic upgrade of public transport while discouraging daily commutes by private vehicles to work?

The real problem with the present government is not the Climate Law, but its priorities.  They appear to be entirely at odds with a sustainable economy.  Until now, we have seen a government dismissive of the environment and global initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  A country that seeks climate stability does not approve three gas-powered electricity plants.  It does not raise the taxes on electric vehicles and delay the approval of the Tel Aviv Metro and other essential rail projects.  It surely doesn’t cancel a tax  on carbon releasing activities and remove the levy on plastic plates and cutlery, at a time when other countries  — from Kenya and Rwanda to the UK — have started banning plastic bags and single use plastics altogether!

The Israeli government apparently has not internalized the new reality: Just last month, the EU formally approved its “Border Adjustment” Tax.  This is a tax which will be imposed on imported goods from countries that do not monetize the carbon footprint of their industries.  The first transition period begins October 1, 2023 and by the end of January 2024, importers will have to start reporting.  Israel’s clever evasiveness will end up costing Israeli companies and the economy dearly.   The world will not remain a sucker forever and suffer members of the international community that consistently release climate friend declarations – and then do the very opposite.

Ultimately, while Israel dilly-dallies, the climate is changing.  Today in New York, they are closing the airports because of smoke from unprecedented fires in Canada — fires connected to the extreme temperatures there.  In the west of the U.S. there are unprecedented  floods with evacuation of residents.  Siberia is melting in a 38 degree (100 F) heatwave.  And in Israel, we wait for another scorching, record-breaking temperature.

For a few years now, Israel’s understated State Comptroller has followed the performance of Israeli governments in addressing global warming. This week, he rated Israel’s progress in addressing the climate crisis as: from “negative to zero”.

Global warming affects everyone — regardless of their religion, ethnic origin, or political perspective.  Despite our differences, all Israelis would like to leave a planet to their children that is healthier than the one we received.  This government’s anemic climate law does little to contribute to this common aspiration.  But we still have time to improve it!

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.