At Biden's Climate Summit, Netanyahu Says Israel Will Stop Using Fossil Fuels by 2050

Israel's position has been unclear before the global summit, and some activists doubt the sincerity of the prime minister's ambitious pledge to rely solely on renewable energy by 2050 and close coal-based power plants by 2025

Zafrir Rinat
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Israelis take part in the 'Fridays for Future' global strike against climate change, in Tel Aviv, in 2019.
Israelis take part in the 'Fridays for Future' global strike against climate change, in Tel Aviv, in 2019.Credit: Corinna Kern/Reuters
Zafrir Rinat

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Friday that Israel will work to supply all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050, at a virtual summit convened by President Joe Biden to discuss the global climate crisis.

Biden called the meeting with dozens of heads of state to declare the United States back at the climate leadership table after his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, withdrew from the Paris agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

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The leaders of some 40 countries participated in the two-day summit that kicked off on Thursday, setting the ground for the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November. 

The Democratic president announced a new U.S. target on Thursday to reduce its emissions 50-52 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels. Japan and Canada also raised their targets.

Speaking at the virtual conference, Netanyahu also mentioned the Israeli government's short-term goals, to close coal-based power plants by 2025 and ensure that by the end of the decade, about 30 percent of power production will come from renewable energy sources, mainly solar. 

Benjamin Netanyahu speaking via video at the Leaders Summit on Climate.Credit: Haim Zach / GPO

In the run up to Netanyahu's speech on Friday, it was unclear what goals Israel would announce. Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the energy and environmental protection ministries had issued any statements on the topic.

Several activists and environmental groups warned Netanyahu's pledge was insincere, as Israel has failed to stand by some of its previous commitments on climate or pass binding legislation. 

Prof. Ofira Ayalon who, together with Prof. Adi Wolfson, co-authored a policy proposal submitted to the premier ahead of the summit, said of Netanyahu’s speech that it “was not a real commitment,” adding that his failure to mention “climate legislation or carbon taxation indicate that it was an eloquent speech that does not bind Israel to anything.” Ayalon lamented that the speech did not “present a courageous vision capable of propelling not only the Israeli economy but also humanity towards a carbon-free future by exporting innovative technologies in the field of green and clean tech.”

The world has had its fill of climate conferences, but this summit is important because it illustrates the United States’ return to the process of dealing with the climate crisis. It was difficult to demand of states like Russia or Brazil to commit to the project while the United States showed no real interest in it during Trump’s presidency.

The summit is also important because of its potential influence on more ambitious goals to reduce hothouse gas emissions by the end of the decade. Numerous scientists say the next 10 years will be critical to prevent the earth’s warming by more than a degree and a half compared to the pre-industrial era, a fateful limit.

Some scientists doubt world leaders’ ability to bring about significant changes in the short term.

A report published at the beginning of the month at the U.S. Energy Department’s request follows the progress to achieve the goal of zero carbon emissions in energy production. The report says that 15 years ago experts estimated that in 2020, carbon emissions would reach 3 billion tons. But the actual emitted amount was half of that. This was mainly due to increased energy efficiency, shifting from coal to gas, continuing to use nuclear reactors and considerable growth of solar and wind electricity production.

Britain has already announced that by 2035 it will reduce carbon emissions by 78 percent compared to 1990. Both the European Union and United States pledged they would slash emissions by roughly 50 percent by the end of the decade, compared to 2015.

Meanwhile, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen presented a plan for the construction of a new artificial island that will serve as a wind energy hub, supplying half of Denmark’s electricity needs. She also noted that the number of people employed in Denmark’s renewable energy industry is currently greater than the number of people engaged in the Denmark’s fossil fuel industry.

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said that by 2030, the clean energy market will hit $23 trillion and be a driving force for a new economy. Granholm noted that the U.S. has pledged to reduce the price of solar power by fifty percent until the end of the decade.

To keep these commitments, far-reaching changes will have to be made in methods of energy, food and industrial production. The countries will also have to forge an economic policy in pricing carbon and revoking subsidies for the oil and coal industries.

Achievable?

Israel is a very minor player in the world emission-balance. Still, it’s not clear how it will do so as long as the ministries dealing with the matter – the energy and environmental protection ministries – have different and sometimes contradictory positions.

Perhaps the differences between the ministries are the reason for the complete lack of transparency in the government’s activity regarding the climate crisis. The government hasn’t informed the public of the approach it will take in the leaders’ conference.

Netanyahu's decision to close down the coal stations is an important achievement. But in all other areas, Israel is lagging far behind. It hasn’t achieved its goal of producing 10 percent of electricity with renewable energies in 2020, and it’s not clear it will be able to do so by the end of the decade, or how.

Netanyahu also said that Israel is investing large sums of money in companies that are developing technologies to improve solar energy storage capacity.

Netanyahu claimed that Israel has succeeded in increasing solar energy electricity production from two percent to ten percent, but this is not accurate. Israel has not yet reached the 10 percent mark – the Energy Ministry claims that this is due to delays resulting from the coronavirus pandemic and has promised that the goal will be achieved this year. 

Netanyahu’s pledge that Israel would work to produce all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050 is much more optimistic than the 85 percent figure touted by the Energy Ministry.

The ministry clarified that even the 85 percent benchmark will be extremely difficult to achieve on account of Israel’s inability to utilize additional energy sources such as nuclear reactors, as well as the challenge of allocating adequate space for solar energy production. In December, Netanyahu had said that Israel would stop using fossil fuels by 2050, the target accepted by most countries in the West. However, he has not yet presented a plan of action or proposed legislation mandating that fossil fuels be phased out.

COVID and the climate

The contradictions in the government’s policy are a major problem. On one hand it plans to close the Haifa refineries, and on the other it authorizes marine oil exploration and pushes for increased oil tanker activity in the ports of Eilat and Ashkelon.

It appears that some of the government’s promises are empty. The Energy Ministry announces it will act to ban importing cars with an internal combustion motor from the end of the decade, but at the moment there is no economic or logistical preparation for creating a market for electric cars at an reasonable price, and with an adequate charging network.

An especially large threat looms over each country’s announced goal – the coronavirus crisis and how to get out of it. Many countries are already showing interest in economic revival packages that enable the polluting-energy industry to resume operations at full steam, as other industries renew activities that emit hothouse gases.

The world will have to find a balance between the desire to recover from the economic burden caused by the coronavirus and the necessity to avert the burden created by the climate crisis.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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