Yosef Gotlieb

To avert a severe decree, Israel must get serious about sustainability

Appropriate stewardship of sparse resources is key to Israel's survival. (courtesy)
Appropriate stewardship of our sparse resources key to Israel's survival

I concluded an analysis of Israel’s development progress just as the Jewish New Year was about to begin. Based on data assembled from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals Report 2022, the findings that I uncovered are sobering. They resonate with the spirit of these weeks of introspection when we strive to break with unworthy practices from the past.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by the international community in 2015 in an effort to make inroads against poverty and hunger, lessen inequalities and halt environmental degradation by 2030. Agenda 2030, a blueprint formulated by experts to improve human welfare across the globe and to safeguard our natural resources, is comprised of 17 SDGs. The SDGs encompass well over a hundred socioeconomic, environmental, institutional and cooperative targets that represent key aspects of life, including food and water security, safe sanitation and clean energy, the integrity of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, reducing economic inequality, decent housing and working conditions, adequate infrastructure, livable cities, eliminating gender gaps, expanded access to healthcare and education and responsible consumption and production.

SDGs Progress Lagging Everywhere

Progress on the SDGs is lagging everywhere, not the least in the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the group of wealthy nations that Israel joined in 2010 amidst much fanfare by local proponents. Admission to the OECD is based on discriminating standards relating to economic growth and finance, infrastructure, democratic traditions and healthcare and educational standards.

According to the 2022 SDG progress report, Israel occupies the 49th place of 163 countries in overall rankings. Countries that do better than us include Lithuania, Cuba, the United States, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Thailand and Russia. Finland, Denmark and Sweden have exceeded 85% of the SDG targets, while the lowest ranking country, South Sudan, has met 39%. Israel has achieved 73% of the SDGs targets.

Compared to the 38 OECD countries, Israel is ranked fourth from the last, with only Turkey, Mexico and Columbia behind us. Israel ranks first place in the geographic region where it is situated, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), but that should console no one: Some of the world’s poorest (Yemen) and strife-ridden nations (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon) are among our neighbors. Other MENA countries, specifically Algeria, Tunisia and Turkey, do not rank far behind us in the overall index.

Critical Targets

My research shows that Israel faces “Major” and “Significant” challenges relating to over a third of the indicators; as things stand now, it is unlikely that we will meet more than three of the 17 Goals by 2030. Many other countries are in a similar boat and a number of Israel’s critical targets are also prevalent in the OECD, especially those relating to ecological and environmental concerns, wasteful consumption and tightfistedness when it comes to overseas development assistance. However, we diverge from OECD norms with respect to critical targets in education, inequality, gender parity, the energy sources we employ, inadequate waste control and recycling; another anomaly is the high level of poverty among two minority groups, Arab Israelis and Haredim. Additionally, with respect to missing values for key indicators (5.3%), we have the second highest percentage in the OECD.

Israel’s “spillover,” a measure of the effects that countries have on the international community as a whole is, however, consistent with that of other OECD countries — which is regrettably negative. According to this index, Israel is placed at the 145th spot of 163 countries and is in the company, mainly, of other OECD and Middle East oil-producing states. Our military exports factor into to this ranking, but so do aspects of the “good life” that we have adopted, which includes high rates of (imported) meat consumption and low rates of recycling, extensive use of agricultural chemicals, and inattention to species loss, all of which contribute to the climate and biodiversity crises.

Lost Opportunities

What is most disheartening about Israel’s performance on the SDGs is that we are missing opportunities for enhancing our own well-being while at the same time actively degrading the natural resources and environmental services that future generations will need. In our eagerness to adopt economic modernization models based on rising resource use, high energy inputs, heedless technologies and mass consumption without consideration of planetary limits, we have severely compromised our own limited resources and fragile ecological base.

Our policies over recent decades have been focused on succeeding as a market economy to the detriment of social and environmental sustainability and public health, the latter being marked by the high obesity and air pollution levels revealed in the SDG analysis. The impacts of our fixation on unbalanced economic growth include continuing inequality, social discord, shrinking open spaces, unmanageable transportation and the absence of affordable housing.

The over-reliance on a high-tech and a services-oriented economy has taken a toll. For example, during recent decades Israeli agriculture has been increasingly sidelined. But as has been highlighted by supply-chain disruptions resulting from the COVID pandemic, geopolitical conflict and logistical bottlenecks in a globalized world, the importance of self-sufficiency to insure basic food security has never been clearer. Yet, SDG targets concerning land stewardship show that Israel is not doing well in caring for our lands and soils. Our record in terms of biodiversity is also inadequate and an enormous resource, our marine jurisdiction which at 26,000 km² exceeds our land mass, is shown to be poorly managed. At a time when “blue economy” and nature-based solutions will be key to contending with the impacts of climate change and other planetary crises, we cannot afford such negligence.

The Portrait in the Mirror

The analysis of Israel’s SDG performance serves as a kind of a mirror, and with the coming of Yom Kippur it is a fitting time to ask if we are satisfied with what we see.

The profile in the reflection is decidedly unflattering and should compel us to undertake a thorough examination of where we are, where we are headed and what kind of nation we want to be. The upcoming senseless round of elections is emblematic of how central a role petty and personal politics has assumed in the life of our society, diverting attention from the substantial challenges that threaten us all. None of the parties have made sustainability a leading part of their platform. Even piecemeal legislation on climate fails to win sufficient parliamentary support and the government is too concerned with the electoral consequences of their policies to display the vision and resolve that the moment requires.

This leaves civil society, enlightened businesses and concerned institutions to fill the vacuum. In these tumultuous times, progress in reaching the SDGs is pivotal for the welfare of our society, the wellbeing of future generations and the integrity of the land we inhabit.

We would all do well to consider ways in which we can be part of the solution — wherever we are this Yom Kippur.

About the Author
Dr. Yosef Gotlieb is a specialist in sustainable development and global change adaptation in the Middle East and Latin America. His books include Self-Determination in the Middle East, Development, Environment and Global Dysfunction and Rise, A Novel of Contemporary Israel.
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