Israel's Cabinet Endorses Climate-change Bill, Dividing Environmentalists

The bill approved by the ministerial committee is significantly less stringent than an original version that the ministry had sought to advance, creating a difference of opinion among environmental groups

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg in February.
Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg in February. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation gave its unanimous approval to proposed climate change legislation on Sunday, of the kind the Environmental Protection Ministry has sought to advance for years.

The consent of the ministerial committee generally means that the coalition government supports passage of the bill, which for the first time is designed to provide a framework for requiring cuts in greenhouse gas emissions as well as preparations to deal with the unavoidable damage caused by climate change.

The bill approved by the ministerial committee, however, is significantly less stringent than an original version that the ministry had sought to advance. The changes created a difference of opinion among environmental groups, some of which saw the committee’s approval as an accomplishment, with the hope that improvements could be made to it during the legislative process. Others were adamantly opposed to the changes and said it would have been preferable that the committee not approve it at all.

The ruling coalition recently lost its majority in the Knesset, however. There is also no guarantee that the coalition won’t collapse before the bill is passed by the Knesset.

Dozens of countries have passed climate change legislation, which is considered a first step in enshrining countries’ commitments to deal with the climate crisis. Israel is warming at double the average global rate, which is expected have economic, medical and defense-related consequences for the country.

There had been major disagreement over the draft legislation proposed by the Environment Ministry, including recent pressure by Finance Ministry director general Ram Belnikov and other ministry professional staff to soften its terms and make it less binding. In the end, the final version received the committee’s backing, following pressure by Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg to resist further Finance Ministry changes and complaints that the changes would reduce the likelihood of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett honoring his commitments on the issue.

Although the final efforts to soften the language failed, during the months of negotiations on the bill it was softened and changed at the request of finance and energy ministry officials.

The objections by critics of the legislation approved by the ministerial committee relate in part to the 27-percent greenhouse gas emission reduction target that Israel has set for itself by the end of the decade. It is considered low compared to other Western countries, which have targets of 45 to 55 percent. But officials at the finance and energy ministries didn’t think Israel could meet even the lower target, and as a result the actual figure does not appear in the bill. Instead, the bill makes reference to a cabinet resolution on the matter and notes that it is subject to change.

A United Nations panel of experts, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has determined that countries have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent in the coming decade if there is to be any prospect of avoiding more serious harm from the climate crisis.

Another issue noted by the critics of the Israeli legislation is the elimination of a requirement to require a climate risk-assessment for major government projects before they are approved by the cabinet, including large transportation projects. The current version of the legislation provides that the cabinet will only set criteria for such an evaluation in a year.

The provision was strongly contested by the finance and energy ministries and the Israel Manufacturers’ Association. The current version will permit the cabinet to continue approving projects without regard to climate change at the moment and permit investment and dependence on polluting fuels.

The most important provision in the current draft is enshrining Israel’s commitment to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the target that Bennett committed to at the UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland in November. To meet such a long-term target, the Environment Ministry will draft a national plan that will be submitted to the cabinet by 2025.

The bill also requires government ministries and other public entities to prepare their own plans to be approved within two years and then revised every five years. A ministerial committee on climate chaired by the prime minister will also be convened to consider the country’s climate change policy.

Zandberg welcomed the approval of the bill by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and said that it “creates the required mechanisms for Israel to reduce greenhouse gases and to prepare for climate changes and the anticipated risks.”

Many environmental groups have expressed the hope, however, that it will undergo changes in Knesset committees that will make it stricter. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel welcomed the committee’s approval but said it provides for “targets that are much lower than in other countries around the world, in that it does not require government ministries to prepare ambitious plans to reduce gases and does not set targets for the near term.”

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