Instead of a rap on the knuckles, let us hope that future reports on Israel’s environmental performance match up to the incredible record Israel has on sustainable innovations.


Published: JUNE 24, 2023

 AN ENDANGERED sea turtle makes its way toward the sea after hatching from a nest, at Palmahim Beach.  (photo credit: MILA AVIV/FLASH90)
AN ENDANGERED sea turtle makes its way toward the sea after hatching

Israel had a bit of a rap on the knuckles recently when it came to its environmental performance. While the innovation ecosphere is busy churning out new technologies to help tackle various aspects of sustainability, from climate change and waste to renewable energy and recycling water, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) the past and present governments have fallen behind.

Before I go into the details, I think it is important to zoom out for a wider perspective. Israel is a tiny country, roughly the size of New Jersey in the US and Wales in the UK, and half the size of New Delhi in India. With a population of less than 10 million people, there is clearly a limit to the population’s impact on a global level, although what is done here can certainly have a direct and immediate impact on quality of life for local residents. 

It is thought by many that the biggest contribution Israel can make to the fight against climate change and for a better environment, is by providing technological innovations to reduce emissions, save and re-use water, and produce more and better-quality food through sustainable farming methods. However, it is also important for the current and future coalitions to take note of what the OECD report said about Israel’s own environmental performance, and its recommendations for action.

Off track

According to the intergovernmental organization, while Israel’s climate ambition has grown, the country is unfortunately off track in meeting its 2030 targets on climate, and over the past decade has raised subsidies for fossil fuels – neither is great news for reducing emissions. The report also says that out of the 38 OECD member countries, Israel has the second lowest rate of renewable energy. 

The data appears to be backed up by Israel’s own annual review, which last month estimated that Israel would achieve a 12% emissions reduction by 2030, compared to a pledge to the United Nations of a 27% reduction in emissions. The review also predicted that despite setting a target of 30% of energy coming from renewable sources, Israel would reach 19%. 

 Clean and sustainable energy (illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Clean and sustainable energy (illustrative). (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The OECD report makes numerous recommendations for action to the government. For example, it suggests easing bureaucracy for integrating renewable energy into the national grid and for installing solar energy, as well as improving the monitoring of environmental compliance. 

The report ranks Israel as having among the highest levels of pollution out of the OECD countries, and the highest rate of native mammals listed as “threatened.” Waste is often connected to both of these issues, and the report suggests that the government needs to provide financial incentives for recycling waste, such as charging households for trash collection to encourage recycling, rather than sending it to landfill. It also cites a need to develop strategies for moving toward a circular economy, which means reusing materials until the end of their lifespan to reduce waste. 

Balancing competing interests

The report recommends passing a climate law, which would include legally binding emissions and renewable energy targets. But here’s the rub. As with many governments around the world, the Israeli government needs to tackle competing interests. These are not only external – such as environmental groups versus industries – but can also come from within the government itself. 

A climate law, for instance, is supported by the Environmental Protection Ministry, but legally binding targets have faced resistance from the Energy and Finance Ministries, leading to protests against the proposed government bill by climate activists. While governments have a responsibility to secure energy supply (we all want access to electricity, hot water, fast WiFi, not to mention public transport and services like hospitals), this demand can often compete with the need to protect planet Earth. 

Recently, with renewable energy progress delayed, the government gave the go-ahead for two gas-fired power stations to meet growing electricity demands in Tel Aviv, with one near Rosh Ha’ayin and an expanded plant in Ashkelon. Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman, reportedly raised her concerns that the move would increase dependence on gas, which is a fossil fuel, and that other countries were instead focusing on increasing renewable energy. 

The plan in Israel is to increase renewable energy, particularly focusing on solar energy. However, recent power outages left hundreds of thousands of people without electricity, with the soaring temperature hitting more than 40 degrees. Israel’s existing solar panels weren’t as effective as usual because of the thick hazy weather, highlighting a limitation of solar power.

Moreover, progress on solar energy has been slower than anticipated, such as with the Jordan-Israel deal (whereby Jordan will provide land for solar panels for Israel, while Israel will provide desalinated water to Jordan). More on this, however, is reported to be planned in time for COP28 in Dubai at the end of the year.

When progress is made, it is important to remember that the government must still balance differing interests. For example, Israel’s National Planning and Building Council recently approved the allocation of 10,000 acres of land for solar energy sites. This sounds promising, and should help the country to increase the proportion of electricity generated from solar power. However, the Energy Ministry had originally applied for an allocation of over 17,000 acres. 

Why the shortfall in the allocation? Because the move was opposed by the Environmental Protection Ministry, which prefers solar panels to be installed on already developed land – such as on new builds, car parks, in industrial areas and on greenhouses – rather than on open space. Critics, however, argued that this would cost more and face further bureaucracy, so building on open spaces was chosen as the preferred option.

Opportunities for the economy

According to Gil Proaktor, head of climate change policy in the Environmental Protection Ministry, there needs to be greater understanding among policymakers of the benefits that lowering emissions can bring to the economy to remain competitive, both in terms of direct benefits and indirect savings on public health and environmental damage. In fact, it has been estimated that the government would save 10 billion shekels – that’s approximately $2.8 billion – if the 2030 targets are met. 

Recent research involving the Israel Democracy Institute’s Center for Governance and the Economy, and based on international studies, suggested that the move toward a more circular and green economy could create 12,000 new jobs. This is despite the predicted decrease in employment in some areas of manufacturing and construction, and in industries dependent on fossil fuels. The new jobs would be in areas like waste recycling and repair services in particular, as well as renewable energy, food and agriculture. The research recommended that Israel develops a skills strategy to prepare the workforce for a smooth transition.

There are clearly changes ahead, with countries moving from industrial and digital economies to more sustainable alternatives. Israel has done exceptionally well so far, enabling the land to bloom in a country that is 60% desert, and becoming one of the world’s leaders in water innovation, despite the fact that – and arguably because – Israel is one of the most water-scarce countries on the planet.

Instead of a rap on the knuckles, let us hope that future reports on Israel’s environmental performance match up to the incredible record Israel has on sustainable innovations. 

The writer is Middle East Correspondent for India’s WION (World Is One) TV news channel. The author of Tikkun Olam: Israel vs COVID-19, she has helped numerous multinationals report on their contributions to tackling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. On Twitter: @JodieCohen613 .