Air Pollution in Israel Is Gradually Dropping

The gradual shift from gasoline and diesel fuel to natural gas is helping improve air quality.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Air quality is an important measure of the success of environmental policy. It was the motivation for the first laws passed in industrialized nations against environmental pollution. It is also the area in which the earliest studies were done that found a link between prolonged exposure to pollution and a rise in morbidity and mortality.

The annual conference of the Environment and Health Fund was held at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa on Monday. Much of it was devoted to the issue of air quality, and while it was clear from the presentations that great strides have been made in the area we are still a long way from attaining the goal of safe, clean air.

The opening remarks at the conference were by Environmental Protection Ministry Director General Alona Sheafer Karo, who chose not to deliver the address prepared by ministry staffers. "They wrote here that recently the connection between environmental pollution and public health has become obvious," she said, "but it is not obvious at all if the Finance Ministry is unwilling to approve the necessary budget for implementing the national plan for reducing air pollution," which has been estimated at approximately NIS 600 million.

Air quality in both Israel and the United States has improved in the past few decades. Increasingly stricter limits on pollution emission have been legislated on the basis of research carried out in the U.S. According to Prof. Jonathan Samet of the University of Southern California, whose presentation to the conference analyzed air pollution reduction policy in the United States, this has resulted in a decline in air pollution by tens of percentage points within a few decades.

The Swedish government has set a goal of reducing air pollution within one generation to the point that it does not pose a danger to people, plants or animals. Swedish officials, however, have acknowledged that the goal cannot be attained within the time frame they have set. Scientists have demonstrated that even very low levels of air pollution pose a health risk.

For this reason, more restrictions on hazardous emissions should be introduced, including stricter standards for factory and vehicle emissions. Efforts to improve air quality face strong resistance from business interests. Samet described a growing trend in the U.S. of questioning scientific findings that link exposure to pollutants and higher incidence of illness and death. Corporations feed this skepticism in order to avoid having to do more to mitigate the air pollution they themselves cause.

The dispute over air quality regulation is also affecting the officials who work for the Environmental Protection Agency, the most powerful government organization in the world in this area. Last month EPA head Lisa Jackson announced her resignation. One of the factors in her decision was her numerous battles with industry lobbies over the introduction of stricter air-quality standards.

Air quality in Israel has also improved, thanks to the switch to cleaner fuels for industry and transportation as well as heightened supervision of factories. Sheafer Karo noted in her remarks that in Haifa air pollution has decline by double-digit percentage points over the past several years, but the air quality in Israel's urban areas still presents a health hazard.

The main offender is particulate pollution, consisting of extremely small particles that are inhaled into the respiratory system, as well as the formation of ozone at low atmosphere.

According to a study presented at the conference by Eran Tas of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the national plan for reducing air pollution, which was initiated by the Environmental Protection Ministry, could improve the situation to some extent, particularly in reducing concentrations of ozone.

The recent discovery of large quantities of natural gas off the coast of Israel will do a lot to improve air quality in the country, to the extent that it will come to replace other, much more polluting fuels. The exploration companies and other financial interests want the state to allow them to export the natural gas in large quantities, in order to increase their profits.

The Environmental Protection Ministry argues that the state must plan so that by 2040 a significant proportion of the country's buses and trucks are using natural gas rather than gasoline or diesel fuel. To that end, the ministry seeks to limit the export of the natural gas from the offshore fields in the Mediterranean and retain sufficient reserves for local use.

This position draws a clear connection between Israel's natural-gas export policy and its air quality. At the conference Sheafer Karo noted that cleaner air saves the state billions of shekels in health costs. This only underlines the argument on behalf of implementing the national air-pollution reduction plan and including within it provisions for the widespread use of natural gas.

A natural gas field off Saudi Arabia’s coast. Air quality improves in places that shift to gas. Credit: Reuters

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