The bill would require all public agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, set up monitoring and reporting systems, and prepare for climate emergencies in Israel

A firefighter extinguishes a fire in the Jerusalem hills, last August
A firefighter extinguishes a fire in the Jerusalem hills, last AugustCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Lee Yaron Oct. 17, 2021

Israel’s government is preparing a national climate emergency declaration that, if approved, would obligate all state bodies to beef up preparations for the impact of climate change.

The declaration is being drafted by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Environmental Protection Ministry, the National Security Council and the Defense Ministry.

The government is also working to pass a climate law, the draft of which is currently supported by all ministries except two – finance and energy.

Although Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Energy Minister Karine Elharrar have repeatedly voiced support for fighting climate change, their ministries were responsible for weakening the climate goals Israel submitted to the United Nations in July. Now, they are trying to thwart the climate bill.

Taken together, the declaration and the law would require all public agencies to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, set up monitoring and reporting systems, and prepare for climate emergencies.

Sources involved in the negotiations said that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is backing Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg’s proposals. She has been pushing the climate bill since taking office and asked Bennett to approve the emergency declaration back in July.

Bennett would like to be able to announce progress on these issues when he attends the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in another two weeks, the sources added.

The Middle East is being affected by climate change faster and more powerfully than many other parts of the world. Yet Israel hasn’t set ambitious targets for emissions reduction and renewable energy, nor has it prepared relevant agencies for possible crises.

The declaration would define the climate crisis as a threat to Israel, which would automatically make the Defense Ministry’s National Emergency Management Authority responsible for preparing for it. It would also require all government agencies and first responders to prepare plans for coping with extreme climate events like floods, fires and heat waves.

The Defense Ministry has considered adding climate change to its threat list since 2018. But only in recent months has it concluded that the issue in fact poses a significant threat.

The declaration, which is a flagship demand of Israeli environmental organizations, would also bolster Israel’s position in the international climate arena. In February, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged all countries to declare a climate emergency, and dozens have already done so.

As for the bill, the Environmental Protection Ministry sent its latest draft to other government ministries for comment last week. The legislation includes binding emissions targets and would require all ministries, local governments and other public agencies to prepare plans for coping with climate change. It also requires preparation of a national plan for reducing emissions and a system for monitoring and reporting on whether the law’s goals are being met.

In addition, it would create a ministerial committee on climate, an expert advisory panel whose members would be appointed by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and another advisory panel comprised of representatives of environmental organizations, industry and “the younger generation.”

Finally, it would establish a climate and environment institute under the Environmental Protection Ministry’s auspices. The institute’s job would be to gather scientific information on these matters from around the world, including by conducting comparative studies, in order to provide the government and the expert advisory panel with accurate and current information.

Lieberman has said repeatedly that he supports fighting climate change and favors imposing a carbon tax. Nevertheless, his ministry opposes the climate bill, and his aides have said he will do so even if the Environmental Protection Ministry’s proposed changes are accepted.

The treasury has submitted 16 objections, of which the most fundamental is that “legislation isn’t the right framework for the steps proposed in the law.” It argues that legislation will limit the government’s discretion and “its ability to manage its budget based on the varying challenges that appear on its agenda at different times.”

Karine Elharrar replaces Yuval Steinitz as Energy Minister at the Minister's exchange ceremony, June
Karine Elharrar replaces Yuval Steinitz as Energy MInister at the Minister’s exchange ceremony, JuneCredit: Shlomi Amsalem/GPO

It also charges that the bill would require agencies to draft a plan for coping with climate change “without addressing what impact this plan will have on other agency commitments or on its budget,” and it objects to letting the science academy determine the composition of the expert advisory panel.

Finally, it contends that the bill’s target of reducing emissions in 2030 by 27 percent from 2015 levels is too steep. It wants the target to be a reduction of only 20 percent.

The Energy Ministry said it doesn’t oppose the bill in principle, but charges that the current wording “doesn’t serve the purpose for which we’re seeking to enact it.”

It also complains that the bill will reduce its own power while giving the Environmental Protection Ministry too much power. The latter’s expanded powers, it said, would “undermine basic principles of our system of government … in a way that might prevent the Energy Ministry from doing its job of ensuring the existence of a reliable, functioning energy market, which nobody disputes is a necessity for maintaining basic normal life.”

The various ministries will hold talks in the coming days with the goal of reaching a compromise acceptable to all sides.

“It’s sad to see once again how government ministries continue to fight with each other, even when the matter is urgent, rather than working together for all Israelis’ benefit,” said Yoni Sapir, chairman of the environmental group Homeland Guards. “If the law’s wings are clipped, it would be better not to pass it at all.”

People view smoke from a fire in the Jerusalem hills, last August
People view smoke from a fire in the Jerusalem hills, last AugustCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg