This afternoon, the State Comptroller of Israel published a special report named “Actions of the Government of Israel and Its Preparation for the Climate Crisis”. This comprehensive report addresses various aspects of the Government’s and other public entities’ actions in dealing with climate change. It is apparent from the report that Israel’s climate policy is lagging a decade behind that of the developed world.
In the days leading up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, the government approved on Sunday (Oct. 24) several decisions to tackle climate change adaptation, maximize Israel’s contribution to the global community, especially in the field of climate innovation, advance regional cooperation and cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This “100 Action Items” plan is an addition to a government decision (no. 171) from July 2021 on the issue of “The Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy” and two other government decisions from August 2021 (208 and 286). The environmental organizations in Israel received these decisions with great disappointment, stating that only declaring a state of climate emergency and legislating a climate law will ensure Israel makes all the necessary steps to combat climate change.
What is most striking regarding the government decisions of the past few months is the terminology used to address Israel’s GHG emission-reduction targets. The terminology is that of reaching a low carbon economy, which is just as it sounds: to reduce the carbon emissions to something “low”. For all those who follow the international climate discourse, the use of that term was popular a few years back, mainly between 2010-2017. Today the world is focusing on becoming net-zero and Israel is lagging behind in its climate policy.
Let me explain.
During my time as the Israeli representative to the OECD Working Party on Climate, Investment and Development, the OECD published two relevant reports: Transition to a Low-carbon Economy: Public Goals and Corporate Practices (2010) and Aligning Policies for a Low-carbon Economy (2015). At that time, focusing on the transition to a low-carbon future was innovative since countries then realized that to achieve a significant reduction in GHG emissions, they needed to look holistically on all fields of life. It required making coordinated changes and removing misalignments in all areas of the economy and not just adopting sporadic mitigation actions, like implementing more energy efficiency projects or increasing the share of renewable energy in electricity production.
Though it was in the years leading up to the COP15 in Copenhagen that people started talking about the necessity of balancing GHG emissions and GHG removals, the terminology truly started changing after the Paris Agreement of 2015. Countries were required to submit their Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, which are basically the countries’ self-defined mitigation targets. Once the figures of all the NDCs were aggregated, it was apparent that the pledges together were not enough to meet the Agreement’s overall reduction targets. There was a “production gap” between how much fossil fuels the world’s governments plan to produce (and use) and their Paris Agreement commitment to limit global warming. Given this situation, it was necessary to step up the pledges.
While the notion of net-zero emissions was already used a few years before the Paris Agreement, it started becoming a necessity when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in 2018 its special report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. According to the IPCC, net-zero emissions are achieved when anthropogenic emissions of GHGs to the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals over a specified period. It was at that point in time that the international discourse on mitigation strategies shifted dramatically from “the transition to a low carbon economy” to “achieving net-zero”.
More and more countries began setting net-zero emission targets for 2050. According to the UN, more than 130 countries have set or are considering a target of reducing emissions to net-zero by mid-century. In an infographic by the National Public Utilities Council on Visual Capitalist, as of June 2021, one can notice that Bhutan and Suriname have already become carbon neutral; several other countries have pledged to achieve net-zero before 2050, but most of the countries pledge to reach net-zero by 2050. Israel hasn’t yet set a pledge, and as of today, the government is still talking in terms of low carbon emissions in 2050.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, according to different sources (in Hebrew), has been quoted saying this week that Israel’s climate targets are not ambitious enough and that Israel will eventually need to adopt a zero-carbon emissions target by 2050. And he is right. There are many who ask why should Israel, which is responsible for less than half a percent of the total global GHG emissions, adopt a rigorous reduction target. The State Comptroller’s report mentioned that if one looks at the emissions per capita, Israel is not a small irrelevant emitter, but rather a medium-sized emitter. In a survey of 29 countries, which was also mentioned in the State Comptroller’s report, Israel is ranked in the upper third group of emissions per capita. Whether or not Israel is a big polluter is irrelevant once you look at the infographics above. Out of the +130 countries mentioned on the map, there are many small or even tiny countries that can be considered irrelevant, yet they are considering or already set a net-zero pledge. It is important to understand that once the IPCC accepted the fact that global GHG emissions need to be balanced at zero, every ton of GHG counts. Even those of the so-called “irrelevant” countries.
This is also why not only big countries have started talking in terms of net-zero. In June 2020, the UNFCCC launched the Race to Zero Campaign which is a global campaign to unite the leadership and gather support from businesses, cities, regions and investors for a zero-carbon future. According to the UNFCCC, collectively these actors who pledged net-zero targets cover today nearly 25% of global CO2 emissions and over 50% of global GDP. In Israel, as of May 2021, Dizengoff Center was the only local company to publish its pledge to reach carbon neutrality. The only other companies in Israel to pledge for net-zero are companies that are owned by international corporations such as Nestlé, which owns Osem-Nestlé.
The lack of pronouncements by the business sector in Israel to adopt net-zero ambitions should come as no surprise. In addition to reasons such as the lack of incentives or awareness, businesses and local authorities in Israel cannot commit to a net-zero target when they are dependent on government policies that determine, for example, how their electricity will be produced, which fuel alternatives will be available for transportation, what will be the fate of their waste, etc. Therefore, it all starts and ends with what the government decides and how it facilitates the business sector. In other words, the future of Israel’s green climate-friendly net-zero economy and society lie today in the hands of Prime Minister Bennett, who is the right person at the right time to make this historic change possible.