23/04/2010 04:00

Environmental issues are an obstacle to a headlong push for growth.

For one hour last night, between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., 14 cities across the nation – including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba – turned off their lights to unite with one billion people in 190 countries around the world for the celebration of Earth Day.

On their Web site, the organizers of the international event, aimed at promoting environmental consciousness, stated flatly that “climate change is the greatest challenge of our time.” Israelis who face the prospect of a nuclear-armed, mullah-led Iran, as well as the constant threat of terror attacks from Hizbullah forces in the North and Hamas in the South, may beg to differ.

Historically our young nation, which had to struggle to make the desert bloom and create from a scratch a modern, technologically advanced country, has tended to downplay the importance of environmental issues as an obstacle to a headlong push for growth.

Nevertheless, the seemingly distant dangers of pollution deserve our attention as well. That was also the conclusion of the Bank of Israel’s annual economic report released, coincidentally, one day before Earth Day.

CENTRAL BANK economists warned, in a chapter devoted to environmental issues, that Israelis use their cars too much. They recommended using taxation to persuade Israelis to drive less.

Israel was ranked 29th out of 210 countries for the number of metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted per capita in 2003, according to the US Department of Energy’s Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center. This puts Israel ahead of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, which occupy respectively the three highest ranks, as well as the US, which is ranked ninth. However, Israel lags behind countries such as Germany, Britain, Spain, Greece and Italy. This is in spite of the fact that Israel enjoys one day a year that is pollution-free – Yom Kippur.

And Israelis do not have a lot of cars, relatively speaking. For every 1,000 Israelis, there were on average 302 privately-owned vehicles between 2000 and 2005 – much lower than the US, with the highest number at 787.

A prohibitively high purchase tax is part of the reason for the relatively low number of Israelis who own cars. In 2008, taxes made up 61 percent of the cost of a private car, and in 2009, these taxes were even higher. This is more than most western European countries, according to the Bank of Israel. In contrast, taxes on fuel – 57% of the price for 95 octane gas – were about the same as in Europe.

Assuming, as Bank of Israel economists did, that the average Israeli is a rational “homo econimicus,” a 1% rise in fuel taxes would cause him to drive 31 km. less per year when the average distance driven in a year is 17,000 km. The economists found that raising the fuel tax was a more effective way of fighting pollution than increasing the purchase tax for a new car. In fact, the economists actually recommended lowering the purchase tax for new cars in parallel to jacking up the fuel tax. This would keep the tax burden unchanged while introducing to Israel’s roads more new cars, which tend to pollute less and be more fuel efficient, in addition to lowering the number of traffic accidents by reducing the number of cars on the roads.

We join the Bank of Israel in advocating a cut in the exorbitant purchase tax on new cars coupled with a rise in fuel taxes. Israel is nowhere near the crisis levels of neighboring Cairo, one of the most polluted cities in the world, but our carbon dioxide per capita levels are way too high. Before an Israeli gets into his car, he should think twice.

THE REAL success of reducing pollution, however, is dependent on providing a green option. Over the years the quality of roads in Israel has approached the level in Europe. But use of public transportation is falling, principally due to the worsening bus service (fewer lines, more crowded buses), coupled with a rise in standards of living.

Tel Aviv is a perfect example. It has the same population density as greater London, with 4,800 people per km. But London offers many more public transportation options. Without viable options, people inevitably turn to cars, which causes more pollution. And nobody wants that.