The goal is that by 2030 the exploitation of nature by man, for the first time since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, will halt, with the start of a reverse trend: the re-inviting the natural environment and ecosystems to fight climate change

Nir Hasson. Jun 4, 2023

When someone considers the changes humans must make to mitigate the climate crisis by adopting protective measures against its consequences, one usually pictures gigantic wind turbines, fields of solar panels stretching to the horizon, and electric cars. There is however, a growing conception where such adaptations must also include a totally different approach such as re-flooding marshes, returning abandoned industrial areas to their previous natural state, and re-channeling urban drainage systems. These are but some of the proposed directions being applied in various places around the world. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPCI) is also trying to bring some of these methods to Israel.

For years international reports have included the idea of nature-based solutions for contending with climate change. According to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the rewilding of natural systems could provide up to 30 percent of the target for absorbing carbon, which humankind must meet by 2050.

This means that nature on its own cannot stop the crisis without a dramatic drop in the emissions of carbon dioxide resulting from energy production and other human activities. The world must quickly turn away from gas, coal and oil. On the other hand, there is no chance of avoiding the catastrophic threshold of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere without resorting to nature-based solutions as well. This term usually refers to the rehabilitation and fostering of ecological systems spanning very wide areas where such systems will be able to absorb surplus carbon dioxide and mitigate the impact of climate change.

In contrast to the rest of the world, climate change is perceived in Israel as a separate environmental niche, unrelated to other environmental issues. Environmental activists are divided, with some emphasizing the need to protect nature, while others wish to address the climate first. The tension is felt mainly around the need for building large infrastructure projects such as wind turbines or solar panel fields, enabling Israel to meet its emission targets, sometimes at the expense of damaging open areas and biodiversity.

The SPCI has prepared a new report, the first one in Hebrew, which tries to close the gap between Israel and the world, while trying at the same time to reduce the tension between the need to protect nature and the need to reduce emissions. “Natural systems around the world have been damaged as a result of development and overexploitation, as well as by climate change. 

These trends are expected to intensify,” write the report’s composers, Tamara Lotner-Lev, Shira Liberty and Shahar Mizrahi. “As a result, the natural dynamics of cycles and feedback are damaged, some of them becoming factors which accelerate climate change and aggravate its implications…nature-based solutions enable a reduction of the damage and a rehabilitation of the balancing dynamics of the earth’s natural systems. This comes along with local solutions to a host of problems, with an improvement of local preparedness for climate change.” 

An exciting solution

The report presents global knowledge on this topic, proposing that decision-makers in Israel adopt nine ways of harnessing nature for countering climate change. The first and most exciting solution, which has gathered steam in recent years, is the return of natural environments to locations in which it was destroyed by development, agriculture or pollution. Rewilding has become a key term in the world of nature conservation and the fight against climate change. Europe has taken hold of this idea with dozens of projects already underway.

The biggest and most successful rewilding project in Israel is the re-flooding of marshes in the Beit She’an Valley. These sites contained abandoned fishponds, which were re-flooded four years ago. Subsequently, they became a bustling nature site containing dozens of species of flora and fauna.

Another rewilding project that was implemented with great success before the term became popular is the Jerusalem gazelle park. In a joint project between the SPCI and the municipality, it was built in the southern part of the city in an area that used to be covered in fruit orchards. The valley, in which a herd of dozens of gazelles is now thriving, is also used for collecting storm water. No less than one third of the city’s storm water is collected in the park and channeled to ponds within it. As a result, a nearby major road intersection no longer suffers from regular flooding after every heavy rainfall. 

Other such projects are planned for streams and winter ponds, but due to a scarcity of land and to government policies that prioritizes the expansion of towns and roads, and even the erection of new towns in open spaces, it’s obvious that a rewilding of large areas will not happen in Israel.

Another solution is the protection of forests and massive urban afforestation. The Ministry for Environmental Protection, which participated in funding the report, as well as the Ministry for Agriculture, will invest millions of shekels in the coming years to promote the planting of trees in urban areas.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Agriculture will invest millions of shekels in the coming years to encourage the planting of trees in the cities.Credit: Aviva Ein-Gil

The Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Green Building Council are currently building a center for providing information regarding such afforestation, such as which trees are suitable and how to incorporate them in urban infrastructure. The main problem is that trees find it hard to compete with parking lots, roads and other infrastructure, above and below the ground. Mayors are reluctant to restrict parking areas for the benefit of trees, since drivers, not trees, vote in municipal elections.

Building drainage systems based on streambeds is another way of using nature to help the climate. This method allows streams to flood designated areas, thereby mitigating urban flooding and creating ecosystems, while aiding the rehabilitation of land and the reduction of carbon. The first such project was built along the Tzippori Stream and there is hope that this will be applied to other streams as well.

Another solution is the use of green ponds for sewage treatment. These ecosystems remove pollutants using plants and bacteria, as well as the soil itself. This method reduces emissions that are present in conventional water treatment plants. 

The report gives examples of using nature-based solutions in other places such as in Scotland where a marsh spanning 50 square kilometers was re-flooded. In Brooklyn, nature was encouraged to take over an abandoned industrial area, converting it into a park. In California, a river is allowed to flood large areas in order to prevent urban flooding and rehabilitate the natural environment around it. Dung beetles were released in France and England in an attempt to rehabilitate areas destroyed by agricultural activity. 

Scientists have determined that in order to prevent the damage caused by climate change, we have to be what is called “nature-positive” by 2030. This term is now used by environmental groups around the world. G-7 leaders also embraced the term two years ago, but not as a goal for 2030. The goal is that by 2030 the exploitation of nature by man, for the first time since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, will halt, with the start of a reverse trend. “That’s the goal,” says Lotner-Lev. “Until then, we must stop the deterioration and change things so that every year we have more, not less, natural areas.”

“People now increasingly relate to the nexus between climate change and the crisis of natural systems, trying to find solutions to the two crises in an integrated manner. Nature-based solutions are more effective and often cheaper than other solutions. When people go to the gazelle park, they feel that it’s a regular urban nature spot, unaware that it collects one third of the city’s storm water,” says Dr. Amiel Vasl, a director of the climate department at the Jerusalem municipality. 

These solutions won’t help as long as ecosystems continue to deteriorate, say people working in this area. Israel’s natural environment continues to shrink at a worrying pace, with 30 square kilometers a year lost to construction of houses, roads, quarries, solar installations and agriculture. The remaining areas suffer from pollution, invasive species, repeated fires, and a breakup of contiguous areas. Medicine’s injunction, “first, do no harm”, also applies to Israel’s natural spaces.