Israel Wants to Plant More Trees to Combat Climate Change, but Just Cut Down 300,000 of Them

Urban renewal plans see mature trees of great environmental import cut down across Israel, and activists warn of long-term damage

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in northern Israel, in December.
Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in northern Israel, in December.Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

The cabinet is expected to approve Sunday a resolution that for the first time recognizes the need “to afforest Israel’s cities,” as part of coping with climate change.

In a tacit recognition of the dire lack of trees and shade in Israeli towns, the resolution calls for planting 450,000 trees over a period of 20 years in 100 local authorities.

The goal is 70 percent shading of sidewalks on main thoroughfares by 2040, out of an awareness of the necessity for “investment in urban afforestation at this time.” Trees are “critical urban infrastructure, especially in a time of climate change,” the resolution reads, adding that the importance of street trees in coping with the climate crisis “is recognized worldwide.”

The planting program will be based on new shade studies carried out by the Survey of Israel, the Construction and Housing Ministry’s mapping and survey department, in the communities targeted by the resolution.

New figures obtained by Haaretz, however, raise questions about the ability of this resolution to produce real change, in light of the massive scope of tree cutting approved by the authorities. Data by geographer Shay Hershko, a tree expert who maps the tree cutting permits issued by the Forests Clerk at the Agriculture Ministry, shows that in 2021, some 290,000 trees were cut down pursuant to some 6,900 cutting permits.

Hershko’s data shows that in 2020, as well, over 200,000 trees were cut down under thousands of permits. Thus, each year Israel will continue to approve the cutting of mature trees of great environmental import – while planting far fewer saplings. Preventing the cutting of mature trees is vital, as they absorb far more carbon dioxide, thereby ameliorating the warming, reducing pollution, creating shade and absorbing more rainfall to prevent flooding.

The National Economic Council in the Prime Minister’s Office, which is co-sponsoring the plan, declined to comment as to what they plan to do in addition to planting new trees, that will take many years to equal the environmental contribution of mature trees.

A drone view of the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak, in 2020.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said in response that a "strategy team" to be set up as part of the plan's implementations "will look into aspects of preventing felling, both in public areas and in private gardens."

Erez Barkai, national forests clerk at the Agriculture Ministry, one of the resolution’s sponsors, said in a written response that the office of the Forests Clerk is responsible for protecting Israel’s trees. It “acts to reduce the number of trees cut down each year, preventing the removal of thousands of trees, through knowledge and balance between the need to develop infrastructures and the need to protect trees and their obvious benefits.”

The draft cabinet resolution, Barkai’s statement continued, adopts the notion that the street tree is a paramount value to be protected. “Trees are important and must be considered” at all stages of planning, execution and in planning and construction policy. “Through the plan we shall promote the protection of healthy, mature trees. In addition, under the new plan, the municipalities will set measurable goals for advancing the urban forest with an emphasis on street trees, so that by 2040, 80 percent of our sidewalks will be shaded by both mature and young trees.

Concurrently, the Agriculture Ministry will guide the municipalities in order to raise awareness of the importance of mature trees and to increase tree shade coverage within their bounds.”

The draft cabinet resolution acknowledges explicitly the problems regarding the removal of old-growth trees, explaining the shortcomings of planning protocol in this regard in great detail. However, tree conservation activists decry the fact that the new resolution has no blanket decision to stop the mass chopping, but only proposals. One called on the Interior Ministry to publish a legislative memorandum amending the Planning and Building Law within 90 days, so that consulting the Forests Clerk shall be the default requirement in any plan calling for chopping or relocating mature trees (save for exceptions to be codified by the interior minister in consultation with the agriculture minister.)

MK Yorai Lahav-Hertzanu (Yesh Atid) has been working on the issue for months. A draft law he submitted that would mandate the marking of mature trees designated for removal was approved in the first of several mandatory votes in the Knesset last week. Parts of his bill are included in the cabinet resolution.

A rare strike on climate change

A drone view in south Tel Aviv, in 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The resolution was drafted over many months by a team with representatives from several ministries and agencies, and is one of the new government’s first initiatives to target climate change. It details the extensive damage Israel is projected to sustain and the importance of urban trees in creating a sustainable living space, admitting that “many of Israel’s cities are characterized by a paucity of street trees.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said “The government has set the climate issue as a national goal. Over 90 percent of the country lives in urban localities, and as the climate gets hotter, the harder it is to walk around outside. So we’re preparing to plant about a quarter million trees in all the city streets we walk.”

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg said: “The climate crisis is already here and requires us to prepare. One of the main places we’ll feel it is in the urban heat load. Our cities need more shade, more trees, and more nature-based solutions.”

The guiding idea of the plan is that every community that wants to create a strategic urban forestation plan should start with mapping the treetop coverage and the walking potential of its streets. The plan is not binding on municipalities, but is rather entirely voluntary and at the discretion of each municipality.

Another problem pointed out by activists is that the plan is not significantly funded despite its high cost, but proposes to bring funding to government approval in the 2023-24 budget talks. The plan’s cost is projected at 2.5 billion shekels ($800 million), with scarce firm funding, but rather a mention of “diverse funding sources – public, philanthropic and business.” Government ministries are levied with only half a million shekels per year for mapping, with a few more millions from the Environmental Protection Ministry. The economic benefit of planting trees, meanwhile, is projected at 3.6 billion shekels.

In a statement, the Venatata afforestation organization called the resolution “an important and necessary step en route to afforesting the cities, improving residents’ quality of life and creating social and ecological change,” but noted the lack of appropriations. “Implementation does not appear promising,” the nonprofit said.

Shachar Tzur, a landscape architect, urban forestation researcher and activist, said that the plan “has the potential to upgrade the issue of urban forestation from talk to action. The important thing is the paradigm change from urban forestation being “nice to have” to a vital resource and infrastructure. We have a long way to go.”

Daniel Katz, director of the “climate forest” project at the Good Energy Initiative NGO said that the formulated plan touches upon all relevant points of lack of urban forest infrastructure in Israeli municipalities. We can only hope these good ideas will be well-translated downward.

"As someone who works with dozens of municipalities, all over the country, the work to close gaps, so that every municipality in Israel knows to treat its trees like real infrastructure, is immense. Speed of decision-making and implementation is critical not only to create urban shade coverage, but to our ability to concretely act to combat the climate crisis.”

Hershko says: “I am happy that this is going to be government policy. Street trees, the vast majority of which should be shade trees, are indeed the majority of the policy. But where is the reference to gardens, fruit trees, and other flora? As the Agriculture Ministry is in charge of the Forests Ordinance, it should lead with the other ministries advising.

"The Interior Ministry should require every municipality to abide by a per-capita standard, and concurrently lead the creation of a national urban forestation master plan, to include shade coverage by areas, regulations for habitats, directives for water and power usage, and more.”

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