As world leaders convene for COP25 in Madrid: Israel hasn’t enacted any climate law but settles for ephemeral government resolutions, says environmental watchdog report, explaining why puny Israel’s emissions do matter a great deal
Ruth Schuster | Dec. 3, 2019

Israel, would-be light unto the nations, has no climate change legislation. While some feel that Israel and the emissions of its puny economy are too small to impact the global climate, a new watchdog report explains that the country’s utter failure to enact laws relating to climate change will impact Israelis a great deal.

Representatives from around the world are currently meeting in Madrid to brainstorm ways to rescue the planet from ourselves. In Israel, meanwhile, we’re brainstorming ways to rescue ourselves from a third election inside a year.

Israel does have some government resolutions regarding the environment, like the Clean Air Law. But governments come and governments go, says Tammy Gannot-Rosenstreich, director of policy and strategy at the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V’Din in Hebrew). She wrote a report on behalf of the organization in late November on the state of climate change legislation around the world. Government resolutions are about as useful as cosmetics for stuffed animals, she says, quoting right-wing politician Avigdor Lieberman (although he was speaking about another subject). If Israel has any genuine intention of doing anything beyond lip service about climate change, it must legislate, explains Gannot-Rosenstreich.

Heating up

Representatives of the world’s nations are meeting in Madrid until December 13 for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 25) hoping to propel the planet into action rather than continue to talk. People are still talking about constraining global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The window to achieve that is narrowing and the COP 25 manifest warns of possible 4-degree-Celsius average warming by the end of this century.

“Israel has neither framework legislation nor declarative legislation,” Gannot-Rosenstreich tells Haaretz. Framework means spelling out the mix of targets for reduction; distributing responsibilities between institutions; setting emission caps by sector; budgets; and determining mechanisms for application and enforcement. It should also factor in projections for how climate change will affect the country.

As for declarative legislation, its name speaks for itself, and in its absence so does our declaration.

Climate change fact: 30 percent of all people worldwide are exposed to deadly heat at least 20 days a year.

Forecast for 2100, under present trajectory: Around 75 percent will be exposed to deadly heat.

Israel has company. It joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2010 and is one of four members that doesn’t have climate change legislation. The other three are the United States, Canada and Turkey. Nineteen of the OECD’s 26 members do have climate change legislation and the remaining few are in the process of creating it, Gannot-Rosenstreich says. In the European Union, countries without their own climate-related legislation are still subject to EU law — and the EU is not in denial. Last Thursday, the European Parliament declared a global “climate and environmental emergency,” and urged all member countries to commit to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Clearing the air

“What Israel does have is some very specific laws that bear some relation to climate, such as the Clean Air Law,” Gannot-Rosenstreich says. That legislation empowered the Environmental Protection Ministry to monitor greenhouse gas emissions (chiefly, but not confined to, carbon dioxide). It can set a cap on emissions when a gas-fueled power or industrial plant seeks an emissions permit, but doesn’t have the power to stamp its ministerial foot and growl “No emissions for you, build a wind farm,” she explains. Absent an integrated national plan, all action is after the fact and marginal, she adds.

Experts are urging that fossil fuels be abandoned for renewable sources of energy much faster than we have been doing. Even meeting the targets set in the 2015 Paris Agreement isn’t expected to halt global warming at 2 degrees Celsius, let alone 1.5 degrees. Yet missing emissions targets is still the norm — including among some of the most voluble nations on climate change, Germany and the Netherlands.

The chief generators of greenhouse gases are power stations and vehicles, from mopeds to ships to aircraft. The dream is to replace all fuel-driven vehicles with electric ones, while simultaneously replacing all fossil fuel-fired power sources with renewables.

That will take integrated, vast, clever planning and legislation. But here in Israel, there is no question that the energy economy and fuel mix are colored by politics, not just the greater good, Gannot-Rosenstreich says. “Some countries — like Mexico, for example — have an energy transition law. We don’t even have that,” she adds.

“Soft” regulation, by government resolution, is fragile. One government may resolve whatever it pleases, but then another comes along. Even when a government decides on something, that doesn’t mean it’s budgeted, Gannot-Rosenstreich points out. And then Israel has a peculiar institution called the Economic Arrangements Bill, enacted yearly with the national budget, which can be used to effectively gut other legislation — for instance, by defunding it. Gannot-Rosenstreich acknowledges that obstacle, but insists that having a law is a completely different starting point from not having one.

Climate change fact: Even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases today, sea level rise is inevitable.

Forecast for 2100: Sea level could rise 6.5 to 10 feet (2 to 3 meters), on business-as-usual trajectory.

Meanwhile, regarding Israel’s conduct so far, Gannot-Rosenstreich says we are not meeting our Paris targets — “and our targets were very low to begin with.” How low could our goals go? So low that if we met them, Israel’s emissions would still be rising. “And we’re not even meeting them!” she wails to Haaretz.

Denial is legion, if not as stupefying as on the White House Twitter feed. U.S. President Donald Trump has explained that his “very high levels of intelligence” prevent him from believing in climate change. NASA then explained that “weather” is a short-term event that may last minutes to months, while climate “is the average of weather over time and space.”

Israeli officials at least haven’t argued otherwise. But when it comes to global warming and climate, they’re not arguing at all. If they’re in denial, it’s to the need to actually do something concrete.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz “recently said we should raise the target for renewables from 17 percent to 20 or 30 percent. But there isn’t even a lowly government resolution, let alone a law. So we pay lip service with statements, and then discover we’re not meeting the targets,” Gannot-Rosenstreich notes.

Legislation would likely survive the perennial political turmoil here better than mere government resolutions. Just look at the United Kingdom: In 2008, it pioneered the introduction of emissions reduction into law, Gannot-Rosenstreich says. Despite the Brexit tumult, the U.K. is now on target for emissions reduction and has jacked up its greenhouse gas reductions target to 100 percent by the year 2050.

Britain, in contrast to Israel, has a Climate Change Act. In late June, it was amended to raise the greenhouse gas elimination target from “at least 80 percent” to 100 percent, as “a legally binding commitment to end the U.K.’s contribution to climate change.” That goal is within reach, Energy Under Secretary of State Lord Henley said, adding that “a net zero emissions target is necessary because climate change is the single most important issue facing us.”

Us too. Some shrug that Israel is too small to matter. The Union for Environmental Defense helpfully provides a list of five reasons why Israel should legislate for climate change mitigation and adaptation measures anyway. We shall sum them up, and not in the same order.

1. Morality.

2. Egotism. Among other things, global warming and climate change exacerbate the potential for regional wars in our parts.

3. Economics. The world is moving to low-carbon or no-carbon alternatives and Startup Nation can’t afford to get stuck in the sooty past. Even hidebound insurance companies are embracing the future — for instance, by declining to cover people living in flood zones.

4. The upside: Our lungs and cardiovascular systems, and the kids. Israel may barely impact global pollution, but eliminating coal and gasoline cars would significantly improve local smog and related illness. Plant a tree while you’re at it.

5. Adaptation — you can deny climate change until your dehydrated cow staggers home, but it’s going to hit you anyway. Just to give one tiny little example for the benefit of those who shrug that global warming doesn’t matter because what are air conditioners for? Adaptation includes the art of coping when heat waves cause overloaded power stations to shut down.

The very argument that as Israel doesn’t exactly have a government at this time serves to underscore the importance of legislation. You don’t need a government to obey the law, Gannot-Rosenstreich points out.

We don’t have legislation, she says when pressed, because of our notion that Israel is too small to have an international effect combined with the local malaise of short-term thinking.

“We have no long-term planning,” she says. “We are incessantly shocked that use of trains is more than we thought, shocked by the need to build more housing though we know the population is growing. There are also vested interests and inertia.”

OK. Suppose Israel looked ahead and legislated. What about enforcement? “Obviously, we’re not good at it,” Gannot-Rosenstreich responds, noting the feeble powers of the environment ministry and its watchdogs, and the plight of the Haifa Bay area.

But she has faith. “Many of the players in the market are normative and obey the law,” she says (when there is a law to obey, anyway). “When you have a law, some will break it — but not all. And when you have a legislative framework, you have room for civil legal action. If you’re emitting too much, people can sue.” And they probably will.

Climate change fact: Despite our statements, our trajectory is presently for average global warming well beyond 2 degrees Celsius.

Forecast for 2100: That depends.