Startup Nation and Climate Change: Q&A With Haaretz's Ruth Schuster

Our Science editor answers readers' questions about Israel, the Paris conference and global warming.

A projection of the Earth at the COP 21 United Nations conference on climate change, Nov. 30, 2015, Le Bourget, on the outskirts of the French capital Paris.
A projection of the Earth at the COP 21 United Nations conference on climate change, Nov. 30, 2015, Le Bourget, on the outskirts of the French capital Paris. AFP

Ahead of Haaretz Q, our Science editor, Ruth Schuster, answered readers' questions about Israel, the so-called "Startup Nation," and climate change.

Hello everybody, I'm glad you're joining us. You've sent some really interesting questions. Let's start with those on Israeli technologies and water shortages and then look at the Paris Climate Conference.

Isn't Israel's population so small it really doesn’t matter to world emissions if the entire population went vegan and started walking barefoot instead of driving cars. Does it really matter what Israel does?

You're right. Statistically speaking, it doesn't matter. Israel's potential contribution to emissions reduction falls within the global margin of error. However, being a developed nation, it can set an example – and more importantly, the government can choose to support climate-oriented Israeli innovation for the greater good of the whole planet.

So can Israel make a contribution to reversing the trajectory of climate change?

It can, less by reducing emissions itself and more by supporting research into completely new, ground-breaking technologies for energy and transport. Halting, let alone reversing, the trajectory of climate change depends on people developing technologies that do not exist yet.

What can be done before such new technologies are invented?

We can improve our resource management, from energy to water, and there too Israeli startups and companies have a great deal to say. For example, solar technology has been around for decades but just one problem not resolved is efficiently storing surplus energy produced during the day for use at night. A lot of Israeli companies are working on better ways to tap solar power and to store the energy.

Ruth Schuster
Tomer Appelbaum

We constantly hear about the need to save water. Why? Are we running out?

In water, the world isn't "running out" it. We aren't losing water molecules to outer space. But experts estimate that we are losing some 50 percent of water the water passing through pipelines through leaks, exacerbating the depletion of freshwater aquifers. 

Can the water loss through leaks be resolved without replacing whole city infrastructures?

Yes, by finding leaks faster and fixing them properly, which would require less pumping from aquifers. Again, a number of Israeli companies are working on efficient solutions to detect leaks and make smarter use of water. Another cause of aquifer depletion, and contamination, is irrigation. Another set of technologies that can make a real difference to the water economy is smart irrigation.

We know that Israelis invented drip irrigation. Aside from saving water, how does this help the environment?

Drip irrigation, invented by the Israeli company Netafim, was a game-changer for farmers and our water. Man has been irrigating fields by flooding them for ten thousand years. Flooding is very wasteful of water, while drip irrigation aims to provide the amount of water crops actually need straight to their root systems. The water can be infused with fertilizer and other necessary chemicals. Drip irrigation helps the environment first by being less wasteful of water, and second by economical use of fertilizers, so less leach through to our groundwater. 

What other game-changing water technologies have emerged from Israel?

Some companies are working on the next generation of irrigation technologies, for instance sensors embedded in trees that measure their need for water, or soil sensors. Other companies are working on innovative – and affordable and sustainable – ideas to protect the water in reservoirs, which are subject to evaporation and contamination. 

Do you see desalination as a solution for water shortages around the world?

No. Desalination is reliable because its source, the ocean, isn't going anywhere. But it requires vast amounts of energy and is too expensive for any cities or nations but the rich ones, let alone farmers on a wide scale. Aside from its heavy energy use, desalination is not environmentally neutral: they put out clean water and concentrated brine, which is obviously much saltier than the original seawater. (Roughly speaking, desalination plants produce one liter of freshwater from two liters of seawater.) Recycling wastewater can be another solution.

None say that desalination is a solution!
 
Policy makers certainly shouldn't, though many might have reason to foster that illusion – and in fact many people don't understand the true constraints of desalination as a broad solution for the water requirements, for large populations. Israel itself may have inadvertently fostered an illusion of usefulness at national levels by building a large desalination industry to augment use of regular resources such as groundwater and pumping from the Sea of Galilee. Israel is small enough, and has the means, to afford relatively large-scale desalination. 

When people say we can "recycle" water, do they mean recycling sewage?

Yes. Recycled, or "reclaimed," water is usually sewage from which the solids and contaminants are removed. Usually recycled water is used in irrigation and sometimes to replenish aquifers. Recycled water is theoretically potable but for the yuck factor, so it tends to become drinking water secondarily, for instance by being put into water reservoirs first.

Recycling water isn't cheap either, though: it needs filtering for contaminants, from heavy metals to drugs – and some will get through. Tests have shown that recycled water contains chemicals such as caffeine and triclosan, an ingredient widely used in hygienic products.

By the way, tests of wastewater in Europe and the U.S. – of course – found pretty impressive traces of illegal drugs, from meth to pot to cocaine. Granted, the authorities' purpose is to keep tabs on drug abuse in their jurisdictions and testing the sewage is easier than jabbing needles into everybody in the city. But it's another set of chemicals that theoretically needs filtering out.

What is the goal of the Paris talks on climate change?

To save humans from themselves by achieving what they call a binding, universal agreement on climate. Which means: they hope everybody will admit that climate change is not only a real thing but an urgent one that cannot be denied anymore. It is happening, it is here. The goal is to agree that if the trajectory of climate change is not reversed, the planet could become uninhabitable within the lifetimes of our children's generations.

What exactly is the trajectory of climate change?

We cannot reliably forecast how climate change will affect Earth because the planet is experiencing a new set of conditions. Never before in its 4.5-billion year history has the concentration of carbon dioxide risen this drastically, and how that will affect surface temperatures over the longer run remains to be seen. If it's impossible to reliably predict weather next week, we certainly can't reliably predict weather in a year, let alone 10 or 100.

That said, the forecasts can be made based on probabilities and trends. That is the trajectory of climate change. For instance, we know that that world temperatures have been trending up since the start of the industrial revolution, and have been rising more drastically in recent decades. 2015 is the hottest year on record, as was 2014 before it.

Can we reverse it?

Not overnight. The world will get hotter yet. The only way to hopefully reverse the trajectory of climate change is through total decarbonization of modern society. The technologies to achieve that and sustain our living standards do not exist. 

What is decarbonization?

Basically, to eschew fossil fuels – oil. 

Why is it so hard for countries to reach even a basic agreement?

Maybe because it's only human nature to live in denial. We want somebody else to make the sacrifices.

The developing nations blame the developed ones for the situation. They want the developed nations to bear their costs of decarbonization, and meanwhile to cut them breaks on emissions for their sake of their economic growth. But the developed nations have strains of their own.

We are not pulling together as humankind sharing a single home. The different nations are still jealously guarding their own turf and living standards and have yet to accept that unless man changes his ways, climate change cannot be reversed.

Note that although coal-fired power plants are among the dirtier forms of energy production, they're still being built around the world, including in the giant developing economies of Brazil, China and India. 

Is nuclear power really cleaner to produce?

Yes, by many measures: its outputs are heat and radioactive waste, not carbon dioxide. We still haven't figured out what to do with the radioactive waste and there's always that pesky problem of catastrophic meltdown, releasing radioactive substances into the environment.

Among existing technologies, however, it's the only game in town for low-carbon energy production and is thus recommended by climate change scientists. Speaking in Paris, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington D.C. said that if the world wants to keep up its energy use, we need a new nuclear plant about once a week.

Some relate the rise of ISIS to climate change. Is that true?

Climate change doesn't exist in a vacuum. It isn't the only factor behind the rise of ISIS. But mounting environmental degradation – for instance extreme drought and hence hunger – in the region from 2006 onwards, combined with the inability or unwillingness of the governments to help the increasingly desperate people, left a vacuum in authority into which ISIS stepped. 

Global cooling in 70s, global warming in 90s, climate change now, back to "we don't have a clue" in near future.

Haha! We need to distinguish here between fluctuations in weather (even in weather patterns such as El Nino) and a trend. Looking back 200 years, since the start of the industrial revolution, since greenhouse gas emissions began in earnest, global temperatures have been trending upwards. A cool decade here or there mean nothing to the big picture.

Is there some new urgency in climate change, or is this just another peak in the news cycle?

In some parameters, the pace of global warming and its effects have been proceeding more quickly than expected – and now a Swedish study released last week predicts that warming will accelerate even faster, because higher temperatures will cause an increase in natural greenhouse gas emissions – chiefly methane from bodies of water. See this report in Physics.org.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only announced he was attending the climate change talks in Paris after the Paris terror attacks. Do you think the timing was coincidental? That is, did he want to go for his own purposes or do you think he really has something to contribute to climate change talks?

Netanyahu didn't share his inner thoughts with me.

But does he have anything to contribute to the Paris conference?

I think Israel, from government policy to academia to its business and startups scene, does have what to contribute, and is starting to contribute. Policy and research is supporting innovation that targets climate change, in a vast range of themes, from better planning to better utilization of what resources we have, to inventing the new technologies we will need in order to decarbonize. Some ideas are boutique, some target water-starved villages in remote arid areas of Africa. Some will work, some won't. 

Is Israeli government policy on climate change set?

Rather than do the science from scratch itself, Israel adopted the UN's forecasts for climate change, which are frightening. Like other nations, Israel has emissions goals in place for 2020 and 2030, though it has admitted it isn't on track to meet the goals for 2020. Meanwhile, the government is working with academia to track the effects of climate change and formulate a national adaptation program.

What are Israel's climate-change goals?

The Environment and Finance ministries are still arguing over this. They agree Israeli industry should reduce emissions, but not on how much. There is a general goal for 22 percent of Israeli energy to come from renewable sources by 2030, and for the Israel Electric Corp to use more natural gas rather than coal. Note that natural gas is not "clean," merely "cleaner" than coal. It is an "interim technology."

What is an interim technology?

A technology that won't save the planet but isn't as harmful as the usual technologies. Like natural gas instead of coal. 

Many countries around the world set goals and haven't achieved them. Is Israel adhering to its targets?

No.

In light of global warming, what are the range of forecasts for Israel in the future? In the best-case scenario? In the worst-case scenario? Is there a scenario considered most likely?

Given that forecasters are dealing with unprecedented conditions, it is impossible to issue forecasts with any reliability. Generally speaking, science expects the world to get hotter, on average.

The best-case scenario is if man decarbonizes today and since that isn't going to happen, I will ignore it. Even under that scenario, the temperature is expected to keep increasing for decades because the added carbon to the atmosphere acts on climate with a lag.

The present worst-case scenario, which could change, is that if man's emissions continue on their present trajectory, by the end of the century, the Middle East could suffer an increase of around 12 degrees, rendering it uninhabitable during the day hours in summer.

If the seas rise by 1 meter, will Tel Aviv go underwater?

Most of it, no. The bay area of Haifa-Acre will though. But all Israel's coastal cities will suffer.

Do religiously observant Jews believe in climate change?

They believe that God gave us the planet to live on and we should respect and preserve it. So that's a yes.

That's all we've got time for today. Thanks again for joining us.