Alon Tal

Israel ‘s modest presence at the Dubai climate conference is symbolic

As the world seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Israel's expanding economy remains carbon intensive. (source: Israel, Central Bureau of Statistics, 2023)

Today, the annual “Conference of the Parties” (COP28) of the United Nations Climate Convention convenes in Dubai. Some 70,000 people are expected to join the event. Until recently, Israel’s original plans for national participation were ambitious: 1,000 Israelis from government agencies, the climate tech sector and civil society were supposed to attend, with the Israel pavilion in the exhibition ground designed to host dozens of public events.

The War in Gaza changed this, both because of the need to focus on the country’s conflict with Hamas, as well as concerns for the safety of an Israeli delegation in an Arab country.  The low profile is fitting given the continued gap between Israel’s declarations and actual performance in addressing global the climate crisis.

President Herzog will head the 30-person delegation, comprised of seasoned and talented government officials who care deeply about the climate crisis. This makes sense.  While over 100 heads of states typically attend UN climate conferences, Prime Minister Netanyahu has only come once — in 2015 — and then promptly forgot any promises to prioritize the issue. Surely this is the year when his absence actually makes sense.

By contrast, Herzog’s record on the issue has been impressive. Immediately upon taking office, the President made the global climate crisis a priority, creating a national forum with hundreds of experts and activists, and sponsoring numerous events to raise public awareness and propose action.

COP28 is supposed to highlight the “Global Stocktake”. This process is defined by the UN as a global inventory that assesses how well countries have met the commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that they made pursuant to the 2015 Paris Agreement.  Spoiler alert: while significant progress has been made in many places, the world is still way off track to meet the global goals set under the Agreement.

Israel’s report shows that it remains part of the problem, rather than the solution.  For eight years, the local environmental community has lobbied to get Israel to meet the modest goals it set for itself by 2030:

  • Attaining 17 percent reduction in electricity consumption relative to the “business-as-usual”scenario;
  • Ensuring that 30 percent of the electricity generated would be from renewable sources;
  • Achieving a 20 percent shift from private to public transportation; and
  • An overall reduction of 27% in greenhouse gas emissions

The way things look at present, we aren’t even close.

For a brief moment Israel looked as if it might actually choose to join the growing number of nations who have decided to seriously confront the climate crisis. In 2021 Prime Minister Naftali Bennet attended the COP26 gathering at Glasgow, bringing with him a government pledge that by 2050, Israel would reduce its emissions dramatically, becoming a “net zero emissions” country. To do this the Israeli economy will have to reach a balance between the greenhouse gas emissions released and those taken out of the atmosphere. In practice, this means leaving behind fossil fuel generated energy; an entirely electric vehicle fleet; and a full transformation in the way we manufacture, farm and live our lives.

Sadly, overall emissions in Israel are actually rising.  This colossal policy failure comes at a time when many countries are keeping their promises and have already made impressive reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions: The UK has seen a 50% drop; Germany: 40%; the Netherlands: 30%. As the graph from the official report submitted by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics shows, as of 2020, carbon emissions had increased by 12% since measurements were first monitored in 2003.  Then in 2022, greenhouse gas emissions rose by an additional 3.5 percent.

Following his election, President Biden, assumed a central leadership role on the global stage. The administration’s climate policies are by far the most ambitious ever adopted in the U.S. But he too has opted out of attending COP28 this year, presumably due to the same Middle Eastern distraction that is keeping Netanyahu and eleven Israeli ministers who had planned to attend at home.  Special climate envoy John Kerry knows the issues and what needs to be done as well as any politician on earth. But it’s not clear that he will be able make much progress, in a conference where expectations are already low.

The Dubai venue was controversial from the start, given the United Arab Emirates’ oil-based economy.  A recent report analyzed the affiliations of delegates during past climate conferences. If counted 6581 times over the years that representatives from trade associations representing the world’s largest fossil fuel polluters were given passes to attend the deliberations as part of national delegations.  Presumably, their presence is not intended to encourage an accelerated phase out of oil and natural gas – but rather to lobby on behalf of fossil fuel interests.  With the UN climate conferences traditionally being chaired by the host country, it is hard to imagine that this year’s agenda will confront the oil industry and seek to decarbonize the world’s energy systems.

There is also concern that the international meat industry will try to interfere with the deliberations. It is estimated that some 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions can be linked to beef consumption. with animal agriculture constituting the world’s largests source of methane emissions. Claims abound that lobbying by meat producers led to a watering down of recommendations about climate-driven changes in diets appearing in the most recent scientific assessment by the IPCC, the UN’s climate scientific advisory committee.

The meat and dairy industries realize the threat that an effective global response to the climate crisis might pose to their profits and very survival. So, they too decided to make their presence felt:  Representatives from JBS, the world’s largest and most polluting beef producer from Brazil managed to gain a seat on their country’s delegation. Massive promotional efforts by the industry to promote “sustainable meat” are expected at the gathering.

In short, this year’s modest presence by the Israeli delegation may be a blessing.  After years of “talking the talk”, until Israel begins to “walk the walk” it would be well to show some humility.  Despite a coalitional agreement that calls for a climate law within six months of taking office, the present Israeli government has once again avoided adopting relevant legislation.  Instead, it passed a decision expanding exploration of natural gas sources in the Mediterranean.  This reflects failed leadership and a general disregard for the needs of future generations.

The year 2023 is virtually certain to be the warmest one on record.  Even though we find ourselves in the midst of a war that absorbs all of our energies and resources, it is well to remember that the climate crisis is not waiting.  When the dust settles, it is also well to remember just what this country is capable of, when it decides to take on an existential challenge.

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.
Related Topics
Related Posts