Eco-Innovation: A Shortcoming for the Start-up Nation
While there is increased global demand for clean and renewable energy solutions, Israeli investment in this field falls woefully short. This negligence both harms Israel economically and causes it to lose out on potential diplomatic gains in a field of increasing global interest
In a world dealing with countless man-made problems, environmental crises pose one of the most dramatic threats. The impact of humanity's dependence on fossil fuels and its irresponsible release of waste into the atmosphere is becoming more palpable in the 21st century.
Acknowledging the severity of this problem has led the scientific community to devote increasing efforts and resources to finding alternatives that will allow mankind to prosper without exhausting and polluting the Earth. An increasing number of countries, companies, and private entities contribute to the field of renewable energy and eco-innovation. Their developments, alongside tangible economic returns, can yield considerable diplomatic gains to their country’s image abroad.
In Israel, we pride ourselves on being a unique hub for technological innovation in a wide range of fields. Our reputation as such attracts private investors and public figures from around the world, who flock here to learn how to develop an innovative "ecosystem" within their own countries. Israel's potential to lead the development of renewable energy solutions and dealing with environmental crises appears, on the surface, rather promising. Unfortunately, promise does not mean progress. Israel’s contributions to managing and solving the previously mentioned environmental crises are negligible. It is also far behind other countries regarding its use of renewable energy and its implementation of innovative technology in eco-innovation.
How did the “Start-up Nation” come to lag so far behind in this field, apparently ignoring increasing global demand? One can offer a multitude of reasons, but ultimately, the consequences are the same: Israel is ignoring the climate crisis and failing to invest in eco-innovation and renewable energy. In doing so, it is losing both promising market share, as well as the ability to partake in a global effort and the diplomatic significance that accompanies it.
“A Sad Joke”
Today’s environmental crises fall into three categories: waste, toxicity, and climate. The waste crisis involves humanity flooding the earth with various kinds of waste that the environment can neither decompose nor process, gradually turning the world into a massive garbage dump.
The toxicity crisis, or “toxic society,” manifests itself in the increasing presence of cancer and other serious illnesses within a population. This is caused by the synthetization of many new compounds and chemicals without knowing how the body and environment will react to them.
The last of these categories of environmental crises is, unsurprisingly, the climate crisis, namely the steady increase in Earth's atmospheric temperature. The main cause of this phenomenon is the global economic system, which relies almost entirely on burning fossil fuels. Rising temperatures are leading to changes in climate patterns, the impact of which will affect people's lives in the coming years.
What role does Israel play in all of this? When I raise this question, people’s first response is usually that Israel is a small society with a small economy. They claim that, because of this, Israel’s contribution to the climate crisis and the accompanying environmental problems is marginal. While their claim may have some validity, it lacks any sense of responsibility for the crises at hand. Instead of distancing ourselves from the problem, we should be asking which steps we can take to help alleviate it. In a world desperate for such solutions, the ones to offer them reap the economic benefits, as well as the benefits that extend to other spheres.
Access to natural gas is a blessing, but our reliance on it may also diminish our motivation to develop and promote the use of renewable energy, such as solar energy.
The main problem lies in the Israeli government’s policies, which have set very modest goals for transitioning to renewable energies - and, unfortunately, does not even meet these benchmarks. Yisrael Danziger, the director general of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, referred to these policies as "a sad and foolish joke." When I was elected to the 17th Knesset in 2006, I passed environmental laws such as the Clean Air Law and the Polluter Pays Law. These were opposition-drafted bills that the government did not like, and often opposed. After ten years, the Clean Air Law cost polluters NIS 37 billion – but it saved Israel NIS 115 billion, mainly in preventing sickness, mortality and loss of workdays.
Unfortunately, recent years have seen increasing opposition from the government and other interest groups. Our progress in the field of eco-innovation has slowed in this period, along with the number of significant laws that have passed. Among professional officials, I often meet people who both understand the severity of this problem and the need to find a solution. The obstacle lies in conservative politicians, who do not understand how important these issues are environmentally and economically.
Another important matter is the discovery of large natural gas reservoirs near the Israeli coast, which is both a blessing and a curse. This find is beneficial to us in that it can free Israeli society and the energy sector from dependence on pollutive fuels like coal. But by that same token, reliance on natural gas can dampen the motivation to significantly develop and rapidly promote the use of non-pollutive renewable energy, such as solar energy.
Here comes the sun
Despite Israel’s shortcomings regarding environmental issues and the development of renewable energy sources, we have made some advances that were impactful in the international arena. Simply put, providing a positive example is a good way to leverage renewable energy for diplomatic gains.
Within this field, the most notable project is taking place in the city of Eilat and Eilot regional council. The area nowadays receives much of its energy from renewable energy sources, primarily solar energy. The use of fossil fuels for electricity in the area has thus become almost obsolete.
The model established by this initiative is both optimistic and one which has gained international repute through events such as the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Conference, which is held every few years and attracts attendees from all over the world. Attendees are eager to observe this model and to contribute to the discourse on renewable energy in Israel. In other parts of southern Israel, there are additional developments in the field of renewable energy taking place at the Institute for Desert Studies at Sdeh Boker and at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva.
With the exception of the Eilat-Eilot project and its success, it is clear that Israel’s biggest environmental oversight is its neglect in harnessing solar energy. Due to its year-round sunny climate, most of the country is frequently exposed to direct sunlight. Eilat-Eilot is the only region that seems to be taking advantage of this and reaping the benefits of solar energy. In comparison, Germany - a country that sees far fewer sunny days than Israel - relies more on solar energy than Israel does. It is disappointing to think that Israel, a country which, in the 1950s, was a pioneer in the use of solar water heaters, has stagnated almost entirely in this field ever since.
Another smaller example of an environmental initiative in Israel is the “Green Knesset,” a project launched by the Israeli Parliament’s Environmental and Social Lobby with the support and encouragement of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Knesset Director General Ronen Plut. The aim of the initiative is to make our legislature more economical and environmentally friendly.
As part of the initiative, we installed solar panels on the Knesset's roof. Today, most of the energy that the building consumes comes from these solar panels. This highlights Israel’s potential to dramatically reduce dependence on fossil fuels through the wide-spread installation of solar panels in places such as roofs.
Solar panels on the roof of the Knesset as part of the “Green Knesset” initiative | Photo: Knesset spokesperson
As a representative of the public who occasionally participates in international events held in the Knesset, I can testify that the "Green Knesset" is one of the projects that the Israeli Parliament is most proud of. Each year, numerous officials from all over the world come to visit the building. Even those who are usually critical of the Israeli government’s policies are impressed by the efforts of the "Green Knesset.” While there are still improvements to be made in the energy management of the building, this change is an important first step forward.
The first step towards successful diplomacy is improved efforts within Israel towards political, social, and environmental issues. Implementing these changes is the key to asserting ourselves as a resource for others worldwide. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go before attaining this, particularly in promoting environmental issues and developing renewable energy sources. The scope of Israel's international cooperation in the environmental field will only change when its approach to this matter changes.
Israel is a partner in all international renewable energy forums. It participates in the International Growth Center (IGC) and other international and bilateral projects with Europe on a variety of issues related to the environment and renewable energy. However, this is simply not enough.
Energy efficiency and renewable energy are the face of the future, and investing in them today will pay off in the long term for researchers and start-ups.
Frankly, we do not contribute sufficiently to global efforts, nor do we learn enough from the experience of others in these fields. If we do not experiment ourselves with new ideas, developments, and technology, we will inevitably fail in selling them to others. The government should lead in implementing a more advanced environmental approach and integrating more advanced technology. To help others, we must first improve ourselves. The invention of Israeli drip irrigation technology is a good example: after successfully applying it locally, we began exporting it to countries around the world, and it has been widely utilized in agriculture for decades.
It is important to note that ranks of professionals are now more supportive than ever in promoting initiatives in the field of green energy and renewable energy. Former Knesset member Ze’ev Bielski was a partner in the bill regarding the harvest of solar energy from roofs in Israel. In his current position as the new head of housing, he contributes to these efforts by means of planning directives in the Planning and Building Council. At the very least, this will necessitate the efficient use of roofs of residential buildings in Israel for heating water.
None of this can cover up the fact that the government pays very little attention to the environment. Its subsequent lack of support for eco-innovation initiatives results in a limited amount of research and development in the field. Despite this, it is clear that energy efficiency and renewable energy are the future and investing in them today will pay off in the long term for researchers and start-ups. If it must eventually become more energy efficient and need to switch to renewable energy, Israel should position itself to be a leader in eco-innovation, as doing so will have immense economic and societal benefits.
Conclusion Israel's innovative potential is enormous, both in terms of its geographical and climatic characteristics, as well as in the composition of its population. Unfortunately, we are far behind others in a field that is constantly advancing. We are guilty of utilizing pollutive fuel products, models that are not conducive for supporting renewable energy, wasteful energy consumption patterns, and the extreme dependence of Israeli society on private vehicles. We must free ourselves from it.
Politicians will only contemplate and implement change when they will be pressured to do so, be it from public pressure, economic pressure, or as a result of events in and with other countries. The more pressure they experience, the more likely it is they will try to implement changes.
There is no doubt that these challenges are complex, but given our intelligence, our ability to adapt, and our drive to improve our standard of living, I hope that we will rise to the challenge. I am quite pessimistic about where things currently stand, but I feel a sense of optimism in the ability to change it.
Knesset Member Dov Khenin (Hadash, the joint list) is chairman of the Knesset's Social-Environmental Lobby. Previously, he served in the outgoing Knesset as the chairman of the sub-committee on public transportation, in addition to leading the environmental revolution in Israeli legislation.
(Photo courtesy of the author)