When Adam was created, a Midrash teaches, God took him on a tour of Eden and said, “Do you see My beautiful trees? It is all for you – but make sure you do not destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair the damage.”
It is only fitting that the nation guided for centuries by such rabbinic teachings should take its rightful place as one of the world leaders in protecting the environment and natural resources. Of the world’s top 100 Cleantech Group companies specializing in environmentally-friendly technology, eight are from Israel.
How many people know that Israel reuses 75 percent of its wastewater for agriculture – the highest rate in the world – and recycles 20 percent more of its plastic bottles than the U.S.? Or that proportionately more homes in Israel (83 percent) use solar energy for hot water than in any other country? (The popular dud shemesh, sun-heated boiler, is actually an Israeli invention and saves 4 percent of Israel’s electricity usage.)
There are many more such stats, but let’s look at three areas in which Israel has recently made major strides: Desalination, natural gas for electricity, and an air pollution battle plan.
It’s given that producing electricity from natural gas leaves the air we breathe cleaner than using coal, mazut, and the like. In the past several months alone Israel has increased fourfold the amount of electricity it produces via gas; at the beginning of this year only 13 percent of its energy production was gas-powered, while the figure now stands at 50 percent.
This breakthrough came about largely due to two major developments: The first is that the Israel Electric Company has made a gradual changeover, over the course of several years, of eight of its ten power stations to gas. The second and more immediate development was the sudden and copious availability of natural gas following the activation of the giant off-shore Tamar gas fields this past April. Though Tamar was discovered in 2009, it took four years until its gas started flowing from offshore platforms to the mainland.
Even better news can be expected next year, when a larger gas field –Leviathan, some 80 miles from Haifa – begins producing. This will actually give Israel the capacity to export natural gas by 2016.
Given these developments, plans for a major coal-energy plant to be built in Ashkelon have basically been shelved; the installation will instead be based on natural gas, with coal to be used only as a backup.
Why is natural gas such a blessing? The answer is that though coal is the cheapest fossil fuel for electricity generation, its emissions are also the dirtiest. Both coal and oil produce high levels of carbon, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide, not to mention ash particles that remain in the air. Natural gas, on the other hand, is the cleanest fossil fuel there is, emitting about 29 and 44 percent less carbon dioxide than oil and coal respectively.
Turning to desalination, who doesn’t know that Israel, like all its Middle East neighbors, has a water problem? Nor has its situation been helped by the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, which requires Israel to provide its eastern neighbor with 50 million cubic meters of water a year, help in the production of another 100 million, and receive in return 10-20 million of groundwaters from the Aravah.
But look at the bright side: In the past several weeks alone Israel’s annual desalination capacities have jumped by about 200 million cubic meters of water. Just two weeks ago the Sorek desalination plant began working at full capacity, producing drinking water on its two production lines at a rate of 150 million cubic meters per year – supplying some 20 percent of Israel’s drinking water. It is now the largest desalination plant of its type in the world, and the third Israeli facility in a row to hold this title: It took the crown from the Hadera plant, which itself not long ago unseated the facility in Ashkelon as the world’s largest.
Further south, the Palmachim desalination plant has also just completed an upgrade, doubling its annual capacity to 90 million cubic meters.
Israel’s natural water resources are currently faring better than they have in recent years. The Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), which provides a quarter of Israel’s water, now stands at 211.34 meters below sea level, a meter higher than this time last year. With the rainy season hopefully on the way, the Kinneret can be expected to rise another meter or two, reaching within a meter or less of its optimal level. This will not, however, solve all of Israel’s water problems and desalination, long resisted by many, is now widely considered the best solution.
Air pollution is a worldwide concern, and Israel’s government this summer authorized a 140-million shekel plan to battle that vexing problem. The plan concentrates on reducing pollution caused by buses and taxis, increasing solar energy for electricity, and encouraging the use of improved public transportation.
The government decision states that thousands of Israelis die each year of diseases attributed to air pollution, and related illnesses cost the economy some 8 billion shekels a year. The new plan will reduce the number of deaths by 700, if the experts are correct in their calculations.
Elements of the plan include efforts to reduce a full 20 percent of the country’s electricity usage by the year 2020. This is to be accomplished by replacing energy-hungry appliances and machines with those that are more energy-efficient. At the same time, at least 10 percent of the country’s electricity needs are to be produced from solar energy by 2020.
In fact, among the eight above-mentioned world-leading Israeli companies are several that have developed energy technologies based on the sun and other natural sources.
The anti-air pollution plan calls for the removal of some 7,500 cars 20 years old and older from the country’s roads. Owners of these clunkers will be paid 3,000 shekels to hand them over for scrapping and crushing. Close to NIS 30 million will be earmarked for businesses to encourage their employees to use public transportation, to increase work done at home, and to cut down on company-owned vehicles. Some 40 million shekels will be further allocated to improving public transportation. Next April a pilot program will be activated involving the use of three city buses using only compressed natural gas – cleaner and cheaper than the fuel currently used by most vehicles.
(This past Yom Kippur, not surprisingly, amazing drops in air pollution levels were registered in Israeli cities. In Jerusalem, pollution dropped a full 95 percent, while in the Tel Aviv and Gush Dan areas it was just 8 percent of the norm.)
Another Midrash teaches, “If you have a sapling in your hand and are told that the Messiah has come, first plant the sapling, then go out to greet the Messiah.” How better to sum up this wide-ranging topic than by noting that Israel not only seeks to prevent environmental damage but is actively involved in improving the situation: It is the only country in the world that ended the 20th century with more trees than it began with. In 1948, it had only five million trees. Now? More than 200 million.
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