Israel's Environment, Finance Ministries Disagree Over Carbon Emission Goals

Environment minister cites 30% drop by 2030 at Tel Aviv climate conference, but treasury says renewables are more expensive than gas.

Despite solar energy farms like this one at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava, current use of renewable enrgy sources in Israel in minimal.
Albatross Aerial Photography

The government should aim to keep Israel’s carbon emissions 30 percent below what they are currently expected to be in 2030, the Environmental Protection Ministry recommended Tuesday.

Doing so would save the economy 125 billion shekels ($33 billion), the ministry said.

But the Finance Ministry considers this goal too ambitious, while environmental groups say it isn’t ambitious enough.

The Environmental Protection Ministry unveiled its proposal Tuesday at a conference on sustainable innovation that it cosponsored in Tel Aviv. The proposal is based on the work of an interministerial committee that was tasked with producing a national target for reducing carbon emissions. All countries are supposed to set such targets in advance of the United Nations Climate Change Conference that will take place in Paris this December.

The interministerial committee concluded that if no policy changes are made, Israel’s carbon emissions will rise 32 percent by 2030, to a total of 108 million tons a year. But various measures to conserve energy, use it more efficiently and increase the use of cleaner fuels and renewable sources could result in Israel’s emissions in 2030 being only 74 to 78 million tons – 30 to 34 million tons lower than what they would be if no action is taken. This would bring Israel to about the same level of emissions per capita as other developed countries. The economic savings would come primarily from reduced fuel use and a reduction in the health damage caused by pollution, since cutting carbon emissions would reduce air pollution.

The ministry proposes aiming for 22 percent of Israel’s energy to be from renewables by 2030. In addition, the Israel Electric Corporation’s power plants should move from coal to cleaner natural gas.

Another important step would be to encourage the widespread use of public transportation. Prof. Eugene Kandel, head of the national Economic Council, also told the conference that Israel should set a price on carbon to encourage lower emissions.

Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabai told the conference that a failure to significantly reduce Israel’s carbon emissions would make it harder for Israeli companies to compete overseas.

“Imagine that an Israeli company wants to compete with a plant in Europe that obeys the rules,” he explained. “At some point the world will say, if you don’t contribute, you can’t compete here. You can’t compete with a plant that obeys the rules while you don’t.”

Gabai acknowledged that Israel’s use of renewables is currently minimal. His ministry lacks the authority to change this, he added, but it will push others to do so.

The Finance Ministry, however, opposes the Environmental Protection Ministry’s target, saying it will require expensive investments that aren’t always economically justified.

Nurit Gal, deputy director of the Electricity Authority, said that in the coming years, Israel will have large reserves of power production, thanks to an increase in production capacity and a slowdown in demand stemming from changes in industry. Therefore, she argued, there is no justification for investing in renewable energy now, especially since this energy is expensive.

Renewable energy accounts for less than one percent of Israel’s power supply capacity, but it constitutes five percent of production costs, she said. Connecting renewables to the grid is also expensive, she claimed, and last year, the cost of doing so reached 1.1 billion shekels.

An IEC executive added that it’s very hard to find technical solutions for connecting and transporting renewable energy.

But environmental activists reject these cost-based arguments, saying they ignore the damage caused by polluting fuels. Once the cost of this damage is taken into account, they argue, expanding the use of renewables makes economic sense.