Israeli 'Revolution' on Climate Change? Fact-checking Bennett's UN Summit Speech

Despite the fact that Israel is located in a part of the world particularly exposed to the impacts of climate change, it is one of 20 countries that has no government-funded national plan for it

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, today.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow, today.Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS - AFP
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told world leaders at the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow on Monday that “Israel is at the beginning of a revolution on climate change.”

“We recently started implementing our 100-step plan, which means that we’re currently doing more to promote clean energy and reduce greenhouse gases than at any other time in our country’s history,” said Bennett at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties. “For the first time, Israel is committing to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 and we will phase out the use of coal by 2025.”

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Haaretz fact-checked his claims, and here is the actual situation in Israel:

* Israel has yet to undertake practical measures needed to begin the “revolution.” Due to opposition from the finance and energy ministries, no climate change law has been approved. The prime minister has yet to intervene to ensure its approval, even though it is a key component of the coalition agreement.

Attendees of the UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, listening during the opening ceremony, today.Credit: Alberto Pezzali/AP

* Last Friday Bennett announced a major upgrade in Israel’s legally-mandated target for reducing emissions, from an 85 percent reduction to net zero emissions by 2050. But the target isn’t backed by an action plan, said sources with knowledge of the undertaking. One source said that only after the Glasgow conference will ministries hammer out the details and present their individual programs to the cabinet in an orderly way. Israel’s modest interim target of a 27 percent reduction by 2030 – just half the amount the United States and the European Union have pledged – will not be amended. In other words, the “revolution” will only occur in another three decades.

* The 100-point plan was adopted by the cabinet on October 26 after efforts to put a climate law or a national emergency declaration on the agenda failed due to opposition from the energy and finance ministries.

* The Israeli government continues to allow fossil fuel exploration, including plans to search for oil in the Arava Desert, and hasn’t announced any plans to stop it. Bennett and his government haven’t backed down from an agreement to ship Persian Gulf oil across Israel to the Mediterranean Sea and further westward, which the state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Co. signed last year, despite warnings about the serious environmental risks it involves.

* Some 84 percent of all public bodies in Israel have no plan for contending with climate change, despite a 2018 cabinet resolution requiring them to develop one, according to the state comptroller’s report on climate change released last week. Bennett has yet to issue an emergency order for them to act.

* In fact, the prime minister didn’t react to the damning report, which showed that successive Israeli governments had failed miserably in preparing for climate change. This not only exposes Israelis to the dangers of rising temperatures, lower precipitation, rising sea levels and extreme weather events, but increases threats to national security, public health, electricity and food supplies and the economy.

* Israel is one of 20 countries that has no government-funded national plan for climate change, despite being located in a part of the world particularly exposed to the impacts of climate change. Last week, Haaretz reported the Israel Meteorological Service’s findings that the increase in average temperatures in Israel was three times greater in the last four decades than it has been over the previous 70 years. The average temperature rise in Israel already exceeds the target set by G-20 countries of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Bennett said in his Glasgow address: “Let’s be real – Israel is a small country. We’re less than a third of the size of Scotland. Our carbon footprint may be small, but our impact on climate change can be mighty.”

* While Israel is a small country, its carbon footprint is equivalent to that of a much bigger one. The state comptroller’s report found that per capita emissions in Israel were higher than in similar countries.

Smoke rising from a factory in the Ramat Hovav industrial zone in southern Israel, this year.Credit: Emil Salman

* A 2016 comparison of 29 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Israel 10th (in the upper third) in the list of countries with the highest per capita emission levels. The comptroller found that “the quantity of emissions in Israel is higher per capita, and together with its being a country with a population of 9.3 million people means that Israel emits greenhouse gases on a scale similar to a medium-sized country.”

Bennett also said: “If we’re going to move the needle, we need to contribute Israel’s most valuable source of energy: the energy and brainpower of our people. This is what fuels our innovation and ingenuity. This is where Israel can make a real difference.

“Israel may be 60 percent desert, but we managed to make it bloom, We may be in one of the driest places on earth, but we managed to become the world’s number one country in water innovation. ... As the country with the most start-ups per capita in the world, we must channel our efforts to save our world. But behavioral change will only take us so far. We’re going to need new inventions and new technologies that have not yet been imagined. This is why I say to our entrepreneurs and innovators: You can be the game changers. You can help save our planet. Instead of building yet another hyped-up app, launch startups that will help solve this global threat.

“Our national pivot to climate solutions can only be achieved with the right ecosystem – which is why I set up a task force called the Green Sandbox to provide funds to help them out and ensure that their path is free of bureaucratic bumps. ... As we work to keep people safe today, we will also be working for the resilience of tomorrow. Where our children will breathe cleaner air, drink cleaner water and live in a world that treats the planet better than we did. Israel is the climate innovation nation and we’re ready to lead the way.”

* As opposed to the impression that Bennett tried to make by highlighting Israel’s important role in clean technology, the government only approved a program promoting such initiatives last week. The program’s goal is to encourage “climate innovation, technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and preparations for climate change.”

* The prime minister announced that as part of the program, the government was forming a team to accelerate the development of climate technology under the direction of the Prime Minister’s Office director general and with the assistance of the treasury accountant general and the attorney general. The team will recommend ways of reducing barriers to research, development and implementation of technology for reducing emissions and readying public facilities and bodies for climate change. But it will only issue recommendations a year from now, when the team has completed its work.

The Hadera power plant, last year.Credit: Rami Shllush

* At the same time, it was decided that going forward, the Prime Minister’s Office director general will devise mechanisms to support investment in climate change tech research and development and consolidate budgetary resources in coordination with the various ministries.

* In addition, a Prime Minister’s Conference on Climate Change and Technology will be established.

Bennett said on Monday: “As we gather here today in Glasgow, we know that history will judge our generation’s response to this threat – not by how ambitious we are but by the practical steps we take.”

The prime minister is correct: The scientists of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have warned that this is the last decade in which humanity has the chance to act to stop the serious damage of climate change. After that, it will be too late.

The goal of the Glasgow conference is to try and prevent the world from warming another 1.5 degrees. To that end, the world’s governments have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years by 45 percent, much more than Israel had pledged.

Nevertheless, it must be said that the prime minister’s words are significant. His remarks that history will judge leaders who fail to act were the direst he has made to date about climate change.

It should also be noted that the climate issue is new to Bennett. He organized his first informational meeting on the matter with experts from the U.S. at the end of August, just four months ago. He admitted that they were “foundational” for him and that he knew little about the subject. A month earlier, Bennett had said that “the climate crisis is a global truth problem” and a week ago he told a cabinet meeting that “The climate crisis is one of the key topics on the world’s agenda” and that “it affects all of our lives.”

When you consider that for decades, Israel’s prime ministers ignored climate change, Bennett’s commitment and the setting of better emission-reduction targets last July to belatedly meet the Paris Agreement is indeed a significant step forward in Israeli policy. But compared to the severity of the crisis and the measures taken in other countries, it is still a bit late.

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