Plan for Cleaning Jerusalem’s Air: A Commentary

The Environmental Protection Ministry and Municipality of Jerusalem announced a plan to tackle the serious health problems caused by the city’s heavy traffic.

According to The Times of Israel, older diesel-powered vehicles could ply the roads only if equipped with pollution-reducing filters. Those caught driving with unfiltered engines will face unspecified fines. The plan will be implemented first in downtown and then across the city.  Moreover, the government will subsidize purchase of the required equipment.

Two years ago, the City of Haifa approved a low emission zone. The Minister of Environmental Protection called on Tel Aviv to join the movement.  Haifa’s population (approximately 280,00 as of 2016) pales in comparison to those of Tel Aviv (435,000) and Jerusalem (874,000) as of the same period. The current ban in Haifa covers parking and traveling in residential areas only. 

Inhabitants of residential neighborhoods can easily spot stray trucks moving through or parking on local streets. In contrast, expanding a low emission zone to the entirety of a much larger city and including commercial and industrial zones, where heavy trucks routinely travel and park, requires a  more comprehensive mechanism. The use of subsidies and fines was eschewed in the United States. The regulatory schemes fashioned by American policymakers and legislators to reduce pollution should be emulated by Israel. 

Rather than diesel fuel, environmental regulators in the US had to cope with leaded, undiluted gasoline choking the air. At first, the Environmental Protection Agency required the use of catalytic converters (similar to the filters in Israel) to reduce vehicle emissions. To insure that drivers did not disable the devices and that the converters worked properly, states instituted automobile emission inspections.  Initially, inspections were mandated every year, currently, they are required every other year. Electric cars — true zero-emission vehicles — do not need inspection. Drivers must keep a current vehicle emission inspection certificate in their car at all times should a policeman ask to see it.

Jerusalem will have to adopt periodic inspections as well. Given the volume of traffic, police could not spot or stop trucks to see whether they have the proper filters in working order.

In addition to inspections, the US took more direct steps.  Congress banned lead in gasoline and required a stated percentage of ethanol — a cleaner fuel derived from corn — in all gasoline sold at the pump.  

Finally, automated toll collections, which take the place of toll booths and the idling engines causing pollution, are an effective way to charge polluters. For example, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority collects tolls electronically through the use of a transponder attached to the vehicle’s windshield or by photographing the license plate. In the United States, trucks pay higher tolls. Roads leading to congested urban areas have higher tolls to discourage traffic. 

Israel should adopt similar approaches. Reuters reported last year that the Energy Ministry proposed to ban diesel and gasoline engines by 2030. According to the minister, the cabinet would approve the plan by the end of 2018. That has not happened. 

In the long term, the government must either follow through on banning diesel, or at least, require cleaner diesel engines.  According to the Diesel Technology Forum, ultra-low sulfur diesel or diesel engines that burn biofuels (such as ethanol) purge many of the pollutants that contribute to health problems. 

In addition to the regulatory approach and subsidies, Israel should use more effective incentives to achieve its goal. Tolls should be used as a means to lower pollution. Drivers may gamble on evading fines. Others may not apply for subsidies. But tolls get the job done.

Israel already employs a variation of this incentive. To help reduce truck traffic, Haifa lowered tolls in the Carmel Tunnels to encourage more trucks to bypass  the city.   

On a practical level, Jerusalem should adopt periodic inspections of vehicles and the requirement that drivers possess current certificates.  In Maryland, some inspection stations are fully automated and are not time-consuming.

Using technology to solve seemingly intractable problems is a sophisticated approach to which Israel is particularly suited.  We can all breathe easier when we use our minds to achieve positive ends.

About the Author
Joshua Z. Rokach is a retired appellate lawyer and a graduate of Yale Law School.
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