Green New Deal for Israel? About time!

In my first blog post I asked why the green movement was so slow at being represented in the Israeli political landscape and wondering where our Green New Deal was. Miki Haimovich of the Blue and White party seemed to be the only politician talking at all about green issues at the time. The fact that we are rapidly destroying the earth that has given us life in the first place seemed to be far from peoples minds. What a difference a few months makes. Last week the Democratic Union party revealed a proposal for just that, a Green New Deal for Israel. No, I cant take any credit, but I do wonder what has changed in order to change the conversation. Perhaps it has been the influence of the Fridays for Future school strikes, perhaps yet another summer of alarming data from heatwaves in Europe, fires in Siberia, the record melting of Greenlands ice sheet, or, perhaps most heartbreaking of all, Bolsanaro’s fires all over the Amazon.

After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and others in the American Congress launched the Green New Deal similar ideas are springing up everywhere. The idea of the original New Deal pioneered by president Roosevelt in the 1930’s was to reboot the economy and get people back to work after the great depression. This time of course, it is less about unemployed people in an economic depression, but rather about how to organize humanity and the environment that sustains them for survival, for us and the rest of the species that inhabit the earth. For this we need a massive push into a different kind of economy, the science is pretty clear about this. Endlessly mocked by the climate deniers on Fox News, the GND has none the less spawned plans from almost all the candidates for President in 2020 within the Democratic party.

Whatever the reason regarding the timing, this week marked a turning point in the sustainable struggle in Israel. The Democratic Union unveiled the Green New Deal for Israel at Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv with Stav Shaffir and Yael Cohen Paran holding speeches.

Shaffir has become the leader of the Green Party inside the Democratic Union party and it is difficult not to compare her machine gun oratory style, the way of spitting out accusations against inequality, her youth and her politics in general with that of AOC. When Yael Cohen Paran speaks, she does so with a different kind of smoldering rage and even at one point becomes tearful while talking about bringing up her daughter in a world that is rapidly destroying the natural world. Paran been one of the pioneers in bringing the environment into the politics of Israel. She has been involved in the green movement for around ten years and became MK in the Zionist Union party from 2015 to 2019, before moving over to the Democratic Union this year. I sat down with her for an interview after the speeches. Here the commitment to these causes turns into such a flood of information that it is hard to keep up. The sharpness of her ideas are matched by the passion she presents them with.

The idea of the Green New Deal for Israel is to target the worst offenders in the carbon economy, while creating the jobs and infrastructure needed to make a just transition. Importantly, we cannot leave the workers in the carbon heavy industries out to dry and need to create alternative jobs to all the jobs that must be eliminated, and at the same time avoid making the mistake of letting ordinary people foot the bill with ever heavier carbon taxes without creating low carbon alternatives.

When it comes to traffic, studies point to Israel having higher car ratio and worse public transportation than most countries in the western world. Surprised, anyone? Cars will of course have to be overwhelmingly hybrid and electric, the GND plan suggests that it is possible to aim for all new car sales will be hybrid or electric within 5 years given the right incentives. So, yalla!

Electric cars are however a smaller part of the solution than you may think. Congestion alone costs the state 650 million shekels for every percentage more cars there are on the road per year in the unproductive waste of being stuck in traffic. So the less cars there are the more money can be saved. At the same time as introducing electric vehicles, you need to minimize traffic overall and create urban living spaces free from congestion. To this aim the idea is to build massively on public transportation and make the centers of cities a lot more livable by creating car free areas and limiting the amount of vehicles allowed into the larger cities. No one who has been to any of Israels larger cities can tell me that this is not needed. They also aim to change some current bizarre features. There is, for example, at the moment a system of grants, “otzaot rechev” for car ownership that all public employees receive. It is an incentive to buy and keep a car, a hidden fossil fuel subsidy and completely retrograde tax. Why not simply give this money as a bonus for all employees rather than a special gift that is only for car owners?

The plan goes further, I.E. that this bonus would be bigger for those who choose to not to own a car. Another example of a bizarre system is the fuel tax known as blu. This is something all private car owners pay while companies do not, why? Well we know why, because these people have friends in high places, but that is not a very good reason. Another oddity is the fact that when much of the world is starting to dismantle its carbon infrastructure, albeit at a sickly slow pace, Israel is planning 10 new gas fired power plants as well as expanding existing ones. 10… in a land awash with sun!

The price of PV solar, the kind you can put on rooftops, has fallen like a stone over the last decade. The fact is that this energy is now outbidding gas fired energy. In this situation Israel plans ten new fossil fuel power plants. It makes no sense. Sure, gas is better than coal, but it is a carbon spewing fossil fuel and as such needs to be phased out of the economy as quickly as possible. It is a scandal, really, and one that the GND aims to fix with a rapid expansion of solar power on rooftops and on the ground aiming for 35% of the whole energy market by 2030 and an amazing 100% by 2050. Solar power needs to be backed up by a drive for storage so that this power can be used at such times as when the sun doesn’t shine. Nighttime for example. Storage is still a problem but one that is changing fast. This would need to be implemented with battery storage of all sizes to back it up, from private household batteries to industrial installations such as Tesla’s big battery project in Australia’s New South Wales. Energy waste is also a factor in Israel, something that the government itself has often admitted, according to the GND. Energy-efficient practices could reduce the energy use by a staggering 31%.

In addition to all the engineering challenges the GND works with they also want campaigns about certain other destructive aspects of our society. A ban to single use plastic would limit the endless amounts of trash you see everywhere in Israel. Public campaigns would aim to educate about the impact of what we consume on the natural world. Meat and particularly beef consumption is of major concern and a huge source of emissions and deforestation.

To the charge of being a small country that has little effect in the world Paran says “Dafka kan! Because we are a small country we can change more quickly”. True. A small country such as ours is a perfect place to electrify transportation, work with smart energy grids and condense cities to combat urban sprawl. If Israel could do it at the same time as facing a multitude of completely different existential threats, why cant other more peaceful countries do the same?

Most of these ideas have been spoken about at length in different places around the world. Helsinki and Oslo are fighting for which of them will manage to become the first car free city and renewable energy is on the rise all over the world. There is one idea that the Israeli GND presents that perhaps is a world first.

The GND aims at a broader idea. To label all food according to their carbon footprint, say a 10 point scale of how damaging or sustainable any food is. The more I think about it the more radical this proposal becomes, instead of the endless deception of advertising we would have it in black on white for all to see, decided by experts, if the food we eat is destroying our future. Instead of debating with your friends and family about eating habits it is right there in front of you in the supermarket.

“I don’t mind being the first in the world” Paran chuckles after seeing how impressed I am.

It isn’t just energy or traffic or meat. All the infrastructure would need to be rethought piece by piece, a tickling concept in a country of architects who have built the country in a couple of generations. Perhaps the greatest challenge ever for the start up nation. The GND looks to increase building apartments massively, but cleverly, building high and building centrally, close to peoples places of work so that commuting doesn’t become such an issue in the first place. You look at modern city planning you can see how the old idea of urban sprawl based around the car is not only dying, it is not actually an option. Less cars, less toxic factories, less trash, less fossil fueled fire plants next to our houses, less oil platforms in our seas.

Lets be honest, we all want this.

About the Author
Toby Gisle is 42 years old, and a trained circus performer who now works as an English teacher in Tel Aviv. Although he grew up in London, he is originally from Sweden. His writings have appeared in a few different publications in Sweden.
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