05/04/2011 23:38

Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan is thinking globally and acting locally.

Before setting off for New York to take part in the 19th United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, which began this week, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan spoke with The Jerusalem Post about his intended contributions to the conference, as well as Israel’s most current environmental achievements and challenges.

In addition to exchanging ideas with other environmental ministers from all over the world, he will present a talk about using mass media as a method of facilitating change in consumption patterns, using his ministry’s “Let’s Think Green” campaign that was launched in January. This year’s commission focuses on creating global policies for transportation, chemical use, and solid and hazardous waste management, as well as establishing a 10- year framework program for sustainable consumption.

Erdan, a member of the Likud Party from Ashkelon, has served in the Knesset since 2003 and was appointed environmental protection minister in 2009. In addition to his political activities, Erdan serves as chairman of Al Sam, an organization that focuses on the drug problem, and chairman and founder of the Lobby for Soldiers Missing in Action.

What do you think Israel can contribute most to participants of the Commission on Sustainable Development?

I’m going to conduct bilateral meetings with the environmental protection ministers of Romania and probably the Czech Republic, among others – this was already set between us. They are very interested in strengthening the relationship with Israel… Many countries are interested in learning from Israel’s experience in water saving, water management and the recycling of sewage – for which Israel is one of the world’s leaders. We are recycling 70 percent of our sewage and transferring it to agriculture, and this number is hopefully going to rise to almost 90% in three or four years… No. 2 in the world is Spain, with 20%, and there’s a huge gap between Israel and the others because we didn’t have water to begin with.

The problem now is exporting this strategy to other parts of the world – due to climate change and global warming, the water resources all over the world are decreasing. Together with that, you have new economies like China and India that have huge growth, and they need much more water in order to satisfy their energy needs, their products and their food, so the world in general needs much more water.

Are there any other issues, besides water, to which Israel can add expertise in particular?

Regarding waste treatment, I will present the reform that I’m promoting now in Israel. I have a lot to say, because we passed the Packaging Law here and it has just started to be implemented. All the big companies in Israel now have the responsibility to collect and recycle their packaging. We raised the landfill levy that the municipalities must pay, and now we’re giving almost half a billion shekels to municipalities in order to finance the waste-separation- at-source process – meaning each house will have two garbage cans instead of one, and the same will occur for garbage cans on the streets. All the infrastructure is going to be changed.

About which of the issues do you expect to learn most from other ministers?

Israel has done almost nothing to oversee chemicals moving through [the country]. That’s why during our current campaign to become an OECD member, the organization demanded that Israel build a new mechanism that will supervise the usage and security of chemicals here. This is something that Israel needs to learn from others, and we gave a commitment to do so – we have a year and a half from now to work on it.

What about transportation issues, another discussion theme at the Commission on Sustainable Development?

I’m not in charge of transportation in Israel. In fact, one of the long-distance goals here is to change the political structure, because you can see, for example, in countries like France and Greece, that the environmental ministries are in charge of policies of other ministries – like energy, infrastructure or transportation. This would be difficult to change midterm during this government because you would need to take away certain authorities from other ministries and bring them under mine – it would cause a political crisis in Israel because of our system. But logically, for the future of Israel, the Environmental Protection Ministry should have some authority over the environmental policies of other ministries as well. From the Clean Air Act in Israel – which is quite old in the US but was legislated only two years ago in Israel, and just started being implemented two months ago – I got the authorities to regulate what kinds of vehicles can be imported, what kind of fuels can be used… We began a green taxation on vehicles last year – the pollution level of each imported vehicle must now appear on the car’s advertisement.

Discuss your “Let’s Think Green” campaign, which promotes green behaviors and decreased spending, and is slated to be the central theme of a special breakfast you’re hosting at the UN on May 13.

This is the first time that a government ever started this type of environmental publicity campaign, when we live in a world that admires capitalism. When you want to see if an economy is working well, most of the time you look at the country’s gross domestic product because it’s easy to measure. Then you take this year’s GDP minus last year’s, and if, for example, you have a growth of 4% and another country has 2%, you say, wow, we have a strong minister of finance who runs the economy very effectively.

Well, that is not necessarily true. Why? Because it is important to evaluate the quality of life that the people receive in the country, and measuring growth alone doesn’t amount to anything… If you compare us to a European country, for example, even if that country doesn’t have 4% growth but does have a mass transportation system and is not dependent on oil and has mostly renewable energy, then its economy is more sustainable and competitive than ours.

One of the problems of accounting only for growth is that we are stuck in a cycle of encouraging ourselves to buy things. That’s the world we live in, and that’s how we measure success. We conducted a poll recently that showed how the average Israeli family throws out approximately NIS 350 worth of food per month… So we provided some tips on how to buy in smarter way. It’s the first time that we are asking the people to reduce their shopping – exactly the opposite of our government’s DNA.

Who is the target of your campaign?

We created a campaign that is talking to everyone, not just to those who are crazy for the environment… We didn’t want to preach to the choir; we wanted to get new people to be active for the environment.

Any other new upcoming plans for the Environmental Ministry?

We are considering working on a campaign to promote tap water, because first of all, mineral water is contained in plastic bottles. In Israel, you have 1.5 billion big and small bottles sold each year, and while a portion of them are recycled, we measured how much water and gasoline is wasted transporting the mineral water on trucks all over Israel. That is before mentioning what must be done with the plastic, which damages the environment. You also pay about 100 times more than you do with tap water, we calculated.

Now that the Egyptian natural gas pipeline has been interrupted again, what’s the best course of action?

It’s not the first time that the natural gas has stopped from Egypt… Of course, we need to be realistic and keep the company running because we don’t want the electricity to stop. But still, when you have priorities – sometimes [the Israel Electric Company] wants to use fuel oil or coal because it’s cheaper, and we want to make sure that the argument will be based on air pollution and not on costs. This is the conflict that we have with them all the time.

According to the current terms, if the system is stopped, for the first 10 days the IEC can use whatever they want, and after 10 days, if the same problem still persists, then we [the ministry’s air quality department] can tell them which power plants to use first, second and third… But now we’re changing these terms because I think that even during the first 10 days, [the IEC] shouldn’t be able to choose the most polluting energy.

Last time when the gas flow stopped from Egypt, in the first days we demanded they use natural gas from Yam Tethys [the Mari-B gas reserves]…My commitment is to the air pollution, and I have said all the time that we cannot rely only on Egypt and we must develop Tamar [gas fields off the coast of Haifa] as fast as we can – there’s no other choice. That’s why I didn’t like all the fight among the investors of Tamar and Noble Energy, because I was afraid that it would delay the development of Tamar. We need Tamar as we need air to breathe. If Tamar isn’t ready in 2013, then we will rely much more on polluting energies.

So should we continue to buy from Egypt when Tamar is developed?

It’s worth buying from them, and it’s quite cheap… It’s not that we should rely on Egypt – we cannot rely on them at all. We should try to buy, but ensure that we’re not dependent on them.

Once Tamar is developed, it will be able to fulfill Israel’s energy needs for the next 20-25 years. And together with that, hopefully in 2013 – and we pushed a lot for this – we will have liquefied natural gas in the port of Hadera… [But regarding Egyptian gas,] we also want to maintain competition, because we don’t want the owners of Tamar to get the highest price that they can get from Israel.”

Will the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement have any environmental impacts?

We are trying to help the Palestinians – both Hamas and Fatah – with their environmental protection issues. In Judea and Samaria, we are working very hard to build pipes… for the treatment of sewage. In Nahal Kana, for example, we invested NIS 35 million to build pipes to which all the Jewish settlements were connected. We offered connection to 24 Palestinian villages along the pipe, free of charge, and they refused. They don’t want any relationship with us, even if it is going to damage their environment and pollute their aquifer. After that, it spreads to our coast as well… In Gaza about a year ago, there was a group of experts who came here to the Shafdan [waste treatment facility] to learn about sewage treatment because there was a danger of a crisis in their water infrastructure – it was supposed to be so bad that the sewage risked entering the sea and spreading as far as Israel’s desalination plant in Ashkelon.

We are helping them in anything we can, and we understand that pollution has no boundaries and that we are suffering together, but unfortunately they are still not cooperating with us. I personally tried to meet the Palestinian environmental minister to work together on environmental issues, and he refused. Now at the end of this month, on May 31, there is going to be a big conference in Paris hosted by France’s Minister of Foreign and European Affairs, Alain Juppe, and he is supposed to attend, but I don’t know if he will agree to meet me bilaterally.

So with the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement, I don’t think there will be any change for the environment, but of course there is a change more broadly – because now even those who believed we had a peace agreement with Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas]… understand that any kind of agreement with him will also put Hamas in the picture.