The Ministry of Finance Presents: Why Pollute Less if you Can Pollute More?

Rony Erez

Published on Ynet on 6/6/2022 (the original in Hebrew)

Within the extensive Arrangements Law promoted by the Ministry of Finance, hides a proposal reminiscent of a legendary sketch from “Zehu Ze! “[a long-running comedic Israeli TV program from 1986]. In the sketch, an Israeli Electric Corporation employee appears to be freezing cold due to the force of the many air conditioners by his manager, Director Wolt. Shivering, the employee asks the director if it might be possible to turn off one of the air conditioners due to the extreme cold. Director Wolt, wrapped in a fur coat, asks in astonishment: “Why turn off an air conditioner if you can turn on a heater?!!”

The sketch is comic, though, in reality, the outcome manifested by the Ministry of Finance is tragic. The new Arrangements Law proposes to allow power plants to “exceed the permit” granted to them under the Clean Air Law, and pollute more than legally permitted, under the stated goal of “reducing greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with Israel’s international obligations.” You can almost imagine Finance Minister Lieberman saying – “Why pollute less if you can pollute more?!!”

How did the Ministry of Finance come to such an absurd conclusion? The proposal’s sin in circumventing the legal provisions that prevent factories from polluting the air, is based on a more original sin, namely the Israeli energy economy’s reliance on gas. The gas used by the energy economy is transported to Israel via pipelines, and pipes are prone to malfunctions. In 2017, for instance, following a malfunction in a pipeline carrying gas from the “Tamar” gas field, the Israel Electric Corporation was compelled to operate power plants using coal, which pollutes more than gas.

The Ministry of Finance seeks to permit this deviation on an ongoing basis. Thus, in the event that risks to the stability of the power supply are identified, it will be possible to order the power plants to proceed with production through the use of coal or other pollutant fuels, free of concerns regarding violating the law or paying a fine. What can endanger the stability of the power supply? Well, an energy economy that relies on one central power source faces various risks: technical malfunctions, earthquakes, and missile attacks are among the most prominent.

The tragedy of this policy is that there’s no alternative. There is a genuine opportunity to base the State of Israel’s energetic future on a distributed and clean energy source, in a sense that will ensure true energy security. Various studies and works indicate that the potential of solar production may provide approximately 50% of the electricity consumed in Israel by 2030. By 2050, the potential is much higher and is likely to account for the entirety of electricity consumption. Yet this potential is far from being realized. Rather than promoting electricity generation through renewable energies, the government is renewing the possibility of further pollution.

Settling a Low Target to Miss

Some say that the means to impress is to set low expectations and then surprise with a mediocre performance. When it comes to renewable energies, Israeli governments have adopted an even worse approach: they set low targets and then miss them. In 2003, the Sharon government decided that by 2007, 2% of the electricity consumed in Israel would be produced through renewable energies. This goal was not achieved. In 2011, the Netanyahu government decided to establish a target of 10% by 2020 and posed an interim goal of 5% by 2014. In 2014, the previous target of 2% alone was achieved. In 2020, a mere approximation of 6% of the electricity consumed was generated through renewable energies. Far below the goal.

Until about a year and a half ago, the government had committed to a goal of 17% by 2030. This goal was adjusted to a supposedly more ambitious aim – namely 30%, with an interim target of 20% by 2025. The problem with the aims is twofold: as we noted above, the potential is much higher. It’s possible to reach 50% of the potential is exhausted. The second problem is that Israel is not even on track to achieve these minimal goals.

This week, the Electricity Authority published a “Multi-Year Plan to Meet Renewable Energy Consumption Targets,” which outlines how we will achieve the goal of 30% renewable electric energy within a few years. The plan is neither backed by budgets nor decisions nor is it guided by any operational measures whatsoever. What does it contain? A lot of positive thinking – if such and such will happen, and the market forces cooperate, then the goal will be realized. And if not?

Who Profits?

The fact that some benefit from the country’s incompetence in promoting renewable energies cannot be ignored. International gas corporations and local tycoons who control the gas supply enjoy presenting themselves as the saviors of the Israeli economy and environment. Yet such a presentation is deeply disloyal to the truth: the truth being that gas is a pollutant fuel. Though it is deemed preferable to coal per some indices, in terms of greenhouse gases it is no less harmful. Thus, gas may serve as a “transition fuel” to the extent that we may succeed in creating an energy economy based entirely or nearly entirely on renewable energies. Yet in that it is part of the problem – that is, among the causes of the climate crisis – it cannot be part of the solution.

Imagine all the political and budgetary resources that have been harnessed for the benefit of gas corporations over the past decade, including approving the gas pipeline, the construction of gas pipelines, the purchase of unique warships to maintain gas rigs, and more. Imagine that such resources could be harnessed toward a transition to renewable energies. Yet instead, the Israeli government has bound our energy future to gas, in stark contrast to what is necessary to contend with the climate crisis. The Ministry of Finance is currently adding insult to injury, in the latest Arrangements bill through a proposal that will not only harm the climate but will also cost human lives.

The Ministry of Finance has adopted an approach in which it has become the sole decision-maker on a number of public issues, allegedly out of concern for the public coffers. Whether through promoting education reforms contrary to the Ministry of Education’s stance, or ceasing to shorten medical interns’ shifts contrary to the Ministry of Health’s position. It is currently trying to reverse one of the environmental movement’s significant achievements, by severely harming the public. The Heschel Center for Sustainability calls on the government not to approve the Ministry of Finance’s proposal to circumvent the provisions of the Clean Air Law, but rather to promote the rapid realization of the potential for solar electricity generation in Israel, through adequate budgeting and decisive implementation.

Rony Erez is the Co-Executive Director of the Heschel Center for Sustainability

Photo by Maxim Tolchinskiy on Unsplash