Finally, the government admits Israel is decades behind Europe in meeting its climate crisis goals. But the government’s stalemate on solar energy illustrates what a long way Israel still has to go

Floods in the northern city of Nahariya, last winter.
Floods in the northern city of Nahariya, last winter.Credit: Tomer Neuberg

Meirav Arlosoroff Aug. 17, 2021 5:05 PM

When do members of the public know that their government is being run in a serious manner? It’s when the government faces the public and admits that it has failed. The Environmental Protection Ministry, which now has a new minister, Tamar Zandberg, and a new director general, Galit Cohen, should be complimented for its seriousness; finally, the leadership at the ministry is admitting that it had failed when it comes to Israel’s recycling policies, and that years of evasion have resulted in the fact that no one believes what the ministry says anymore.

“For years, the ministry has failed, shifted course and shown inconsistency in its policies. Eighty percent of the garbage in Israel is buried rather than recycled,” senior officials at the ministry acknowledged with astonishing candor. “We are at least 30 years behind the world, and that’s an understatement.”

Consequently, the ministry has decided to revert to a 2010 policy, since abandoned, and require households to separate their trash and send recyclable refuse to recycling plants. The goal is to meet the standard in the developed world – send 80 percent of the trash generated in Israel to recycling and bury the other 20 percent – in just one decade.

The public hasn’t heard about the new plan because the ministry has decided to learn from past mistakes by laying the groundwork first and making announcements later. Instead of doing what the ministry did ten years ago – requiring the public and local government to separate their garbage between what was recyclable and what was not, even though recycling facilities didn’t exist to receive the recyclable waste – this time the ministry has decided to first build the facilities and only then make demands on the public.

Israel’s weak link on the climate crisis

Taking responsibility for past mistakes is an important step for the ministry. It follows a similar move by the Energy Ministry, which had committed to a target of generating 10 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020 but fell short, attaining a level of 7 percent. There is major concern at the Energy Ministry that it would fall short of other targets that it has set for itself – 30 percent for renewable sources in 2030 and the more imminent one of 20 percent by 2025, which would mean roughly tripling production from renewable sources within four years. Since electricity consumption is constantly increasing due to population growth, it’s a nearly unattainable goal. No wonder the people at the Energy Ministry are feeling the pressure.

We haven’t yet heard a similar mea culpa from the Transportation Ministry, making it the weakest link in Israel’s response to the global climate crisis. The ministry has failed to shift private transportation to electric vehicles or to curb overall travel, which has only kept growing. Even the goal it has set itself – an increase of only 3 percent in carbon emissions by 2030, rather than a reduction – is a testimony to a failure.

Taking responsibility is important, but it is only the beginning. The main test of policy – the readiness to face the necessary costs of achieving set targets – is where the Israeli government and environmental groups consistently fail. According to last week’s United Nations climate report, a climate disaster is already irreversible, and if the world doesn’t urgently change direction within the next decade, rising sea levels will submerge coastal cities around the world – including Tel Aviv, London and New York – within just a few decades. That would be a catastrophe of the magnitude of a world war, and like the coronavirus pandemic, calls for a drastic and rapid reprioritization.

Considering this urgent situation, the infighting among government ministries and between the government and environmental groups appears petty. The Finance Ministry, for example, continues to raise the tax on electric vehicle sales, putting its tax revenues before the need to encourage the public to shift to electric cars. By the same token, the government has yet to ban the import of vehicles that run on fossil fuels – a ban that is already in effect in Europe – and impose heavy fines on violators.

A Tesla Supercharger station.
A Tesla Supercharger station.Credit: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegman

Of course, there is no point in providing incentives for the sale of electric vehicles and to fine importers as long as an extensive network of electric vehicle charging stations isn’t laid out (at shopping malls, parking garages, office buildings, apartment building parking lots, and, of course, gas stations). It would require a complete overhaul of the country’s electricity grid as well as dedicated legislation.

No one is willing to pay the price

Nevertheless, the root of the problem does not stem from cash but from Israel’s most expensive natural resource: land. The only major source of renewable energy available to Israel is solar power, but the production of solar electricity uses up huge swathes of land. For instance, producing a megawatt of solar-generated electricity requires 150 times the land that producing it with natural gas does. And absurdly, environmental entities – including the Environmental Protection Ministry – have become the main obstacle to the shift to renewable energy due to their opposition to using open spaces to generate solar power.

The ministry and environmental groups claim that the country can generate 40 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources through the dual-use of land, i.e., by installing solar panels on roofs, bridges, traffic islands, parking garages, cemeteries, water reservoirs and even agricultural land. Rooftops are underutilized for solar power production, they claim, because the government is paying too little for electricity to incentivize such projects.

It’s clear to everyone that installing solar panels on residential roofs is fraught with difficulties (including obtaining the residents’ approval), meaning that very substantial financial incentives should be offered to make this happen. Meanwhile, public institutions should be required to install solar panels on their buildings and adjustments should be made to the electricity grid to permit it to be fed by millions of sources.

Solar panels in Petah Tikva
Solar panels in Petah TikvaCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Officials at the Energy Ministry, the Planning Administration and the Electricity Authority think that the Environmental Protection Ministry’s plan is unrealistic. As high-rise construction is claiming more ground, relatively less space is available on roofs; and there is demand for roofs to be used for other purposes – including penthouses, daycares, public areas and gardens. Energy Ministry officials also think that the 41 agorot (13 cents) per kilowatt-hour that is currently paid for electricity generation on privately-owned roofs – five times what is paid to large solar energy production facilities – is too high.

Achieving 30 percent of electricity production from renewable sources by 2030, they say, can be obtained from at best 70 percent dual-use of land and at least 30 percent use of open spaces. That would mean sacrificing another 40,000 dunams (10,000 acres) of open space on the altar of solar energy production, in addition to the 60,000 dunams (15,000 acres) already planned for at this point (in comparison, the city of Tel Aviv has an area of 50,000 dunams or 12,500 acres).

For the time being, achieving 70 percent dual-use of land appears to be a distant target. The Education Ministry won’t install solar panels on the roofs of schools unless it gets refunded for them; the Finance Ministry doesn’t want to require public buildings to install solar panels because they’re expensive; and the Israel Land Authority isn’t prepared to give up a single dunam of agricultural land to produce solar energy instead of cucumbers.

The result: Everyone is terribly keen to shift to renewable energy, but no one is willing to pay the price. The Finance Ministry isn’t prepared to fund it. The Israel Land Authority isn’t ready to forgo the revenue that it derives from land. The Energy Ministry isn’t prepared to raise electricity rates. Environmental groups are not read to pay the price to sacrifice open spaces around the country. No one is prepared to make the difficult decisions necessary to have solar panels installed everywhere they can be.

At this rate, Tel Aviv really will go under soon.