In efforts to preserve open spaces, one option is the installation of solar panels over agricultural fields in a way that allows the crops enough sunlight

Peace Valley in Yokne'am Ilit in the north.
Peace Valley in Yokne’am Ilit in the north. Credit: Rami Shllush

Zafrir Rinat Sep. 27, 2021

As climate change bites in the coming decades, Israel will be getting more crowded too, providing an extra challenge: Open spaces will be needed for solar energy facilities and wind turbines, not just for extra housing.

Groups like the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel are now exploring the effect of using land for renewable energy.

Only last year did the SPNI list the climate crisis as one of its major preoccupations, while the nature authority presented its first professional report on the crisis’ impact last month.

Yehoshua Shkedy, the head of the authority’s science department, says Israel lacks sufficient information on how climate change will affect its ecosystems, though it will certainly reduce rainfall and alter the distribution of species and the spread of diseases. The solution, he argues, is to give more land protected status.

Nir Papai, the SPNI’s outgoing vice president, underscores the dilemma in the shift toward renewable energy.

“Initially, we focused on opposing the construction of facilities in open spaces,” he said. “Now there’s better thinking that proposes the use of existing buildings or areas that are already populated.”

Ehud Adiri, the Energy Ministry’s outgoing director general, says  rooftops, reservoirs, quarries and other spaces already in use can be sites for renewable energy facilities.

But the Economic Arrangements Bill accompanying the annual budget, which will be brought for its final Knesset vote this fall, also recommends that the National Planning and Building Council allot more open land for solar energy facilities beyond the existing 20,000 dunams (4,940 acres).

“If we want maximum use of this energy, we need more land,” he said.

Still, both the ministry and the SPNI hope that technology will allow renewable energy to be produced without using more open land. This means installing solar panels over agricultural fields in a way that allows the crops enough sunlight.

The energy and agriculture ministries are currently advancing a pilot project to this end.

Another option is tree-planting and the preservation of land that can absorb rainwater. “The expected worsening of floods requires different planning around streams” to enable the surrounding land to absorb floodwater, Papai said.

But environmentalists are leery about expanding forests to absorb more carbon.

“Planting in open areas, whose vegetation already absorbs carbon dioxide, not only fails to improve the balance but undermines important ecosystems,” Shkedy said. “Planting should be focused on cities, where it has important added value.”

The housing crisis offers both threats and opportunities: Housing might be built on open land, but the crisis could encourage high-density construction beneficial for the environment.

Urban expansion has spurred the SPNI to play much more of a role in protecting urban nature, including by cooperating with public health experts.

“Health is also about the physical and emotional benefits of being in nature, not just dealing with diseases,” said Prof. Hagai Levine, a public health expert at Hebrew University who is part of efforts to protect open land east of Rehovot. Land near a city is extremely important for encouraging people to experience nature, he added.

Environmental planner Moti Kaplan says that “preserving nature and open spaces means gathering into cities and high-density buildings. This is the entire theory of nature preservation in Israel in its modern meaning; all the rest is just details.”

He argues, for example, that more housing and better schools and cultural facilities in Ramle and Lod in the center of the country could have made the entire town of Modi’in unnecessary. This would have preserved tens of thousands of dunams.

The new nature authority report also addresses the sensitive issue of curbing population growth, which Shkedy considers unavoidable to battle climate change. But the SPNI’s Papai isn’t convinced that Israelis are ready to address this issue, so he fears that raising it would be counterproductive.