Etan Golubtchik
Etan Golubtchik

Israel’s climate fantasies and futilities

Earlier this week, Israel’s new government announced its unanimously approved plan to reduce carbon emissions by 85% over the next 30 years. This was hailed by Israel’s environmental protection minister as “a historic moment for health, the environment and future generations.” On these pages, MK Alon Tal argued that even these goals were disappointing as they would not be enough to “avert climate chaos”. Yet, based on all available evidence, this commitment will likely cost Israel hundreds of billions of shekels, and would unleash chaos on local natural habitats and the economy. It will also likely have no measurable impact on carbon dioxide levels or the local or global climate. 

This graph depicts the upward trajectory of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as measured at the Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory by NOAA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Credit: NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory with timeline notes added by author

There is little debate that carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration levels have been increasing steadily over the past century. The Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, which has been monitoring CO2 concentration since the 1950s, recently announced that CO2 concentration levels have reached a record peak of 420 parts per million in May of 2021, despite an entire year of Corona related restrictions on global transportation. This steady and consistent rise followed the passage of multiple international agreements to limit the usage of carbon-based fuels globally, including, but not limited to, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the 2001 Marrakesh Accords, the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, the 2011 Durban Platform, and the 2015 Paris Climate Pact. As one can see in the nearby chart, not a single one of these agreements led to any measurable change in carbon dioxide concentration growth. Nonetheless, the monetary and environmental costs of these agreements have been gargantuan.

Israel’s plan, even if implemented to perfection, would have a negligible effect on anything global, carbon or climate-related. In 2019, Israel emitted approximately 64 million tons of carbon dioxide, of which nearly two thirds was required for generating irreplaceable baseload heat and electric power. Israel’s annual emissions make up less than one-seventh of one percent of all globally measured CO2 emissions due to fossil fuels. This, in turn, is only a small fraction of the nearly 800 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted by the oceans and natural vegetation on an annual basis.

Israel’s contribution is invisible on the chart. Source: Our World in Data based on the Global Carbon Project.

For comparison to Israel, China emitted 10.17 billion tons of CO2 in 2019, which was an increase of over 200 million tons of CO2 from the previous year. China’s one-year increase in emissions was, therefore, more than three times Israel’s entire annual output of carbon dioxide. Despite promises made in Paris, China shows no intention to slow this growth as they have built hundreds of new coal plants in just the past year and a half. India and other Asian countries now appear to be on the same path of carbon emissions growth. If Israel were to actually reduce its carbon emissions by 85% over the next 30 years, an unlikely feat, any potential benefit of such action would be negated within a matter of weeks by Asian CO2 growth. Furthermore, in the extreme and unlikely scenario that every country was to meet its Paris agreement promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, a 2015 MIT study estimated the result would be an unnoticeable 0.2 degree Celsius reduction in global temperatures 70 years from now. Why would Israel pursue this carbon reduction, even if possible, while knowing full well it would have only a negligible effect on global atmospheric conditions or temperature? 

Not only would the effect of this plan be immeasurably negligible, the plan is unlikely to succeed. Countries like Germany, Denmark and England have been at the forefront of trying to lower carbon dioxide emissions over the past two decades, and the results have been an unmitigated disaster. Germany has spent or committed over half a trillion dollars over the past decades to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Instead, the construction of “renewable”, though unreliable, energy sources have led electricity prices to double, while the electrical grid has become less reliable with increasing blackouts. Meanwhile, much of Germany’s supposed reductions in carbon output seems to be based on an accounting trick which involves importing wood pellets from North Carolina, and burning them in Germany to provide needed baseload electricity after coal plants were preliminarily retired. The carbon emissions for cutting down the forest are attributed o the US, while the wood pellets burned in Germany are recorded as renewable biomass, despite the fact that wood burns much dirtier than even coal. Solar and wind simply can’t compete economically with fossil fuels, even with the help of massive tax subsidies, as they provide a severely inferior power source at the end of the day. 

Out of desperation for reliable electricity, Germany is now cutting down ancient forests to mine the much-needed coal underneath, and is installing a brand new natural gas pipeline from Russia, from which they will be reliant to maintain electric grid integrity. All of this occurred after large natural habitats and local environments were destroyed to accommodate wind and solar farms that require nearly 400 times as much land as a natural gas well to produce the same amount of electricity. Carbon progressive California has similarly experienced increased electricity prices, reduced grid stability with constant blackouts, ruined natural habitats, and little measurable net reduction in carbon emissions, all despite years of regulatory and tax policies aimed towards that specific goal. 

While the specific terms of the new Israeli plans are sparse, one announced goal of committing to purchase only “clean” electric city buses beginning in 2026 provides a good example of how the remaining plans will likely play out. As an initial phase of this plan, the purchase of 220 electric buses will be subsidized by 86 million shekels just in 2021. Yet, outside of China, where a coal-based electric grid was built with powering electric buses in mind, electric buses have almost universally failed. In Philadelphia, an electric bus fleet previously highlighted by the Biden Administration had to be completely replaced after a $24 million investment by the city. The battery proved to be too heavy for the chassis, and even so, did not have enough energy capacity for a 100 mile daily route, only averaging 30-50 miles per charge. Adding charging stations along the route was not only too expensive, but also unviable due to long expected charging times and inadequate electrical grid infrastructure. Meanwhile, in Germany, electric buses have proven to not work in the cold, or sometimes spontaneously burst into flames causing millions in damages. Similar issues of electric bus unreliability happened in Vancouver, Los Angeles and Albuquerque with hundreds of millions of dollars wasted. Meanwhile, the potential benefit of a reduced carbon footprint of such vehicles is highly questionable. Once one considers the large amount of mined metals and battery chemicals required to build such a vehicle, and the likelihood that these buses would only be charged from fossil fuels when the sun is not shining, a recent calculation by the International Association of Sustainable Drivetrain and Vehicle Technology Research group confirms that a reduction in carbon output would be negligible at best. 

Reducing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may or may not be a worthy goal in itself, but Israel’s pursuit of such a goal will not only be very costly to Israel’s taxpayers and the local environment, but it will also likely achieve no measurable results. Worldwide carbon dioxide will continue to increase at the same rate due to Asia’s continued rapid growth which dwarf’s Israel’s minor contribution. It is also unlikely Israel will get anywhere near a fraction of its goal of reducing carbon emissions considering the outright failure of other countries and US states of achieving that same goal. The only reliable energy technology that possibly could reduce Israel’s carbon footprint is nuclear energy, and that does not appear to be an option considered by the current government. Meanwhile, pipe dream technologies like solar power, grid-level battery backup, and hydrogen require significant amounts of carbon based fuels to install and operate, are generally unreliable, and have never succeeded on a large scale. 

Israel’s government, unfortunately, is repeating the same strategy many other governments worldwide have tried without success, yet for some reason Israel expects a different result. An alternative that Israel should pursue is learning how to adapt ourselves and our world to whatever the supposed effects of a high carbon world might be. Fossil fuels have been the primary cause of human progress and safety over the past 200 years. It has also allowed us to adapt to a potentially harsh climate with weather-caused deaths per capita and weather-related costs per share of GDP declining to historically record lows. An alternative approach to potentially rising sea levels and flooding would include the building of dykes and seawalls and proper maintenance of dams. These would be far cheaper and would lead to much better outcomes. Heat-related deaths could be mitigated by making air conditioning and refrigeration more available worldwide at a fraction of the cost. If the goal is to limit wildfires, simple forest management techniques, such as those developed in the 1930s, have already led to major reductions in burn acreage around the world. 

Staunch environmentalists like Bjorn Lomberg, Michael Shellenberger, and Steve Koonin, have all acknowledged that humans may be causing harm to our climate, but that the apocalyptic climate predictions are highly exaggerated, and that we should carefully allocate resources to solving climate problems while balancing our other social requirements. They each realistically point out that the best way to help the environment and nature is by encouraging industrialization and economic progress which will allow humanity to adapt to an ever-changing world while limiting unnecessary harm. This approach leads to better outcomes long term both for humanity and the environment. Hopefully, Israel’s leaders will come to this realization as well before wasting monetary and natural resources that Israel has never had in abundance, pursuing the impossible. 

Public policy should not be based on what we hope or dream, but rather on what we know is possible based on the resources available to us. The Israeli government is instead choosing an exercise in futility, all at immense cost. Pursuing a noble goal with no chance of success may seem chivalrous, but that is not the job of a prime minister and government who have a duty to act responsibly on Israel’s behalf. Israel was blessed with multiple discoveries of abundant natural gas resources in recent years. Natural gas burns significantly cleaner than coal, and has led to decreasing affordable electricity prices and cleaner air. Compressed natural gas buses would not only be cheaper to buy and operate than electric buses, but they would also likely lead to better environmental outcomes. One thing that is clear based on the available evidence is that pursuing the current strategy will yield no benefit at all for Israel’s “health, the environment and future generations” as our ministers have foretold. 

About the Author
Etan Golubtchik is an energy industry professional with a background in engineering and financial modeling. He made the decision to join the oil and gas industry after researching the issues involved, and is proud of the work he does to help bring affordable energy to modern society.
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