Initially robust climate legislation has been ‘neutered,’ say environmental organizations, as Israel is set to come up short on the goals it committed to at the UN

Lee Yaron Apr. 28, 2022

Climate protest in Tel Aviv, earlier this year.
Climate protest in Tel Aviv, earlier this year.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Israel won’t succeed in reaching the carbon-emissions reduction targets the government has set, Finance Ministry officials said in closed discussions in recent weeks, according to government sources.

“We won’t meet the targets the government committed to. There’s no chance,” an official from the Treasury Ministry’s budget department said at one such session, which had been called to discuss a proposed climate law.

A draft of the bill obtained by Haaretz, as well as numerous sources, indicate that the Treasury Ministry’s demands had a decisive influence on the wording of the bill, which will be brought up for approval in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation in about 10 days.

A key issue in the discussions was the short-term target for reducing emissions of warming gases by the end of the current decade. The cabinet had decided that Israel would reduce emissions by 27 percent by the decade’s end and even committed to this at the United Nations. But now Treasury officials say Israel won’t meet that target, even though it’s already lower than those other countries have set.

“Maybe we’ll reach 20 percent in the best case,” one official said, adding that, therefore, “We must not commit to this in the law.” Other sources confirmed that this was the Treasury Ministry’s view.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, this month
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, this monthCredit: Moti Milrod

Treasury officials explained that Israel’s plans for reducing emissions are still in the early stages and that they haven’t advanced enough to make meeting the target possible. The state comptroller said the same thing earlier in a scathing report on the subject.

One major reason the Treasury considers the target unattainable is Israel’s rapid population growth. Moreover, significant emissions cuts will require widespread changes in Israel’s economy and infrastructure – a challenge for governments worldwide. UN scientists recently said that, to avoid the worst effects of climate change, countries must significantly increase their efforts.

A ‘watered-down’ law

During discussions of the bill, the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, Yair Pines, and the bill’s sponsor, Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, both agreed to a compromise in which the bill won’t include a numerical target for the end of the decade. Instead, it will merely note the cabinet’s decision and add that this can be changed, providing an opening to lower the target.

Nevertheless, Zandberg did manage to preserve the bill’s explicit commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. This means that changing the long-term target will require new Knesset legislation, but the short-term target can be changed relatively easily.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg at a climate conference in Jerusalem, in February
Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg at a climate conference in Jerusalem, in FebruaryCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Sources involved in the discussions said Treasury officials insisted on this, fearing that if the short-term target were enshrined in law, it would be easier for people to petition the High Court of Justice against the government for failing to meet it. But Zandberg’s office thinks the compromise language is still sufficiently binding, and that future governments won’t lower the emissions target due to growing international pressure on this issue.

The Prime Minister’s Office says it would have been impossible to agree on the bill without that compromise, and that it prefers having a “bird in hand” to arriving at November’s UN Climate Change Conference without a climate law having been enacted, thereby violating Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s explicit commitment – or, alternatively, to having the government collapse, which would also prevent climate legislation from passing.

But even now, the law’s passage isn’t assured, since the government lacks a Knesset majority.

Moreover, many Israeli environmental organizations say no law at all is better than a watered-down one, and a long list of them signed a letter to Bennett and Zandberg voicing that view.

One organization, Green Course, explicitly accused the Treasury Ministry of “working behind the scenes to castrate the law. The ministry is putting up smoke screens to conceal the actual neutering of the targets.”

FILE: Climate activists
FILE: Climate activistsCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

“A law that lets the cabinet lower the targets every time they aren’t met will enable it to shirk responsibility,” the group added.

But despite the bill’s flaws, the Environmental Protection Ministry sees it as a success. It noted that the Treasury Ministry initially opposed setting any targets in the law, but that the final bill does include a target for 2050. Moreover, ministry officials said, the compromise bill is much better than the current situation of no climate law at all.

They also noted that, after years in which the ministry was alone in pushing for emissions reductions, the bill would for the first time legally obligate all government offices to take action on this issue.

Silver linings

And indeed, the bill contains several pieces of good news for climate activists. It requires the government to draft a national plan for emissions reduction every five years, set up a ministerial committee on climate issues, set up an advisory panel on climate change – an independent committee of experts that will submit opinions on national plans, such as exists in Britain, New Zealand and California – and establish a governmental institute for climate and the environment.

Another significant provision requires all government ministries to draft plans for how to “reduce the expected damage from climate change on aspects related to that ministry’s activities.” On the downside, it gives ministries until 2025 to complete these plans. And a similar cabinet decision passed in 2018 was never implemented at all.

Moreover, representatives of the Natural Gas Authority and the Manufacturers Association have now been added to the professional advisory committee.

And aside from the emissions targets, one other provision was significantly softened in the final version of the bill as compared with the Environmental Protection Ministry’s initial proposal – a requirement that all major government plans, such as big transportation projects, include an evaluation of climate risks before the cabinet approves them. Its goal was to prevent major projects from being approved without determining whether they would raise emissions.

But the final bill eliminates this requirement. Instead, it merely recommends that the government set criteria for which projects should require such an evaluation within the coming year.

The original provision was “a significant one that gave the law its operative significance,” the environmental organizations protested in their letter to Bennett and Zandberg. “Without examining the targets’ compatibility with the plans being advanced in practice, the government won’t have any effective tools or methods to enable it to stop building high-emissions infrastructure that will undermine its compliance with the targets it set.”

A commitment to enact climate legislation was included in the government’s guidelines when the government was first established. Many other countries have previously enacted climate laws that detail how they will combat climate change.