"Climate tech is not the Messiah, we cannot rely on it without actually doing the work”

Days before world leaders gather in Glasgow for Cop26, climate and environmental technology expert, Shira Ben Ami, discusses the dissonance between Israel’s enormous innovation potential and its actual situation regarding climate tech, and warns of trying to evade responsibility and greenwashing

"Climate tech is not the Messiah, we cannot rely on it without actually doing the work”

Smoke cuased by wildfire near Givat Yearim at the outskirts of Jerusalem as it is seen from Jerusalem August 16, 2021 REUTERS/ Ammar Awad

“Israel could harness its innovation capabilities and do a great things in the climate tech sector, but it isn’t there yet. If you examine the global climate tech and innovation sector today – we’re a minor player, almost non-existent. True, we have many interesting, promising startups, full of potential, but at the moment Israel is not the interesting, relevant global arena player it could have been.”

This statement, made by Shira Lev Ami – an Israeli expert on climate and environmental technology, who is active across many platforms in promoting climate legislation and raising awareness in Israel – is endorsed by the numbers. Israel’s Innovation Authority, together with PLANETech, a local nonprofit innovation community for climate change technologies, presented the big picture in its State of Climate Tech 2021 report.

Innovation Authority: Israel is far from fulfilling its Climate tech potential

According to the data presented, almost 10% of hi-tech companies established in Israel over the past year develop climate technologies, and a current total 637 startups and growth companies devoted to this sector. Furthermore, until today over 560 private investment entities have invested in Israeli climate companies. 

However, out of the leading 20 investment entities, none is fully dedicated to climate technologies, and two-thirds of the investors are from abroad. Between 2018-2020, the Israeli government invested approximately $280 million in climate tech R&D, while the private investors have put it some $2.97 billion. A drop in the ocean in comparison to the global $50 billion investment expected for 2021 alone. And while the report takes note of Israeli innovation in areas such as cultured meat and irrigation systems, it also mentions that the country is “far from fulfilling its potential, as reflects in its relatively low rate of participation and success in the Horizon Program.”

And so, as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is packing his bags to Glasgow, Israel finds itself lagging far behind most progressive nations – though buds of progress have been sprouting for a few weeks now, including a newly-approved multi-billion NIS, multi-annual, 100-step government plan for addressing the climate crisis, set to span most governmental ministries.

At the same time, however, Israel chimes on with the development of anti-climate, anti-environmental projects, such as the oil transportation agreement between the EPA and the United Arab Emirates, aspirations for increased reliance on natural gas, among others. Furthermore, Israel’s long-term emissions reduction strategy is much lower in comparison to most developed countries. And one cannot ignore the lack of awareness (or caring) by most Israelis regarding climate change – a subject perceived as a distant, even elitist problem. Drafting a climate law is also off the table at the moment, mostly due to major disagreements between the Ministry for Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Energy. And in the absence of such a law – even this new, aspirational 100-step plan is not much more than a mission statement.

Climate migration on a massive scale

“Here in Israel, we have a very self-centered point of view. We like emphasizing how small our influence is, that we’re only responsible for 0.2% of global greenhouse gas emission – and so the effort isn’t ours to make. But this is a wrong way of viewing the situation,” explains Lev Ami. “Over one third of global emissions are from countries that manufacture less than one percent, like us. And so, if everyone takes this devil-may-care approach – the situation will only worsen. All of humanity needs to chip in, not just major powers like the US, India and China.

Q: What are the unique challenges facing Israel in terms of climate change?

“Israel is facing two major national security threats, in a short to medium time span, the first being immigration,” says Lev Ami. “There is going to be climate immigration on a massive scale. The current estimate is of at least 200 million climate refugees by 2050. Just to put things in perspective -- the Syrian refugee crisis, which completely destabilized Europe and is still affecting global geopolitics, was 6.8 million people.  

Shira Lev Ami. Photo by Inga Avshalom Shilian, Q Elite Beauty

Israel’s position is unique, and twofold: not only does it lie in the heart of one of the world’s hottest regions, which – in addition to that -- is heating up at a quicker pace than the global average, but it is also a strategic geopolitical area. “We are a transit country, a bridge between Africa, which is quickly becoming an unlivable place, to Europe – which is still going to enjoy a reasonable climate,” explains Ben Ami, and warns that Israel will not be able to evade this. “When people need to survive, they look for any and every possible way. Our strong borders will not be enough to keep us safe.”

Israel’s second major challenge, which Lev Ami points out, is its food security. “The rising temperatures, droughts, floods – all of these have and immediate, direct harmful effect on food growing abilities worldwide, as soil productivity is rapidly declining. As it is, we do not have the independent capacity to provide most of our nutritional needs. Our total dependance on global production and supply chains, which demonstrate time and time again how vulnerable and fragile they are, is a major problem. The Israeli government is trying to decrease the cost of living through lowering tariffs and costs of imported products, but this not the way to buy us peace of mind.”

Q: Let’s address the elephant in the room, present in all climate discussions – Israel’s high fertility rate

“Correct, and we cannot revoke this influence – which is a generator of real risks as far as additional carbon footprints. However, the environmental movement treads lightly around this topic,” says Lev Ami. “Yes, people understand that the high fertility rates are responsible for a big part of the problem – but what it’s put on the agenda, many people feel under attack, or removed from this discussion. Our goal is to bring people together, not apart.”   

Climate tech innovation requires strong state involvement

“We cannot ignore the decades of consumer production and manufacturing every individual brings to this planet, but we can try and mitigate its influence – promoting renewable energy, developing proper, nutritious and affordable protein replacements, recycling waste rather than burying it” Lev Ami continues. “These are just a few things that can be done in order to reduce and limit the damage, and to this end, we must harness technology.”

So how can the high-tech nation become a significant actor?

“We have so much potential, as a state, that can be realized through a national climate innovation program,” says Lev Ami. “There must be substantial governmental involvement in encouraging climate tech development, easing regulation and red tape in this sector, and funding R&D and production. We’re talking of national infrastructure solutions, at a national scale – not an app that can work everything out with a few million dollars.

But on the flip side – Israel is a mall country. We’re not China, that can manufacture anything on a huge industrial scale, and supply the world’s needs at a cheap price. But Israel could be the player who brings the early-stage solutions, the ones that lead to growth and to the development of large, substantial companies. And all of this is much more difficult without state involvement. So if Israel is interested in contributing its part to mitigating the climate crisis, while promoting its economy at the same time – this is the way to go, through innovation development.

Q: What are your thoughts regarding the newly-approved governmental climate plan?

“Promoting this issue and putting it on the government’s agenda is very important,” says Lev Ami, but notes that “at the same time, some of the issues this plan discusses are already included in other governmental plans and decisions, such as public transit routes and electric trains. In order to make sure that these beautiful statements are not just greenwashing, so that Israel will have something to share in Glasgow, all ministries must work together and turn the intention into reality.”

The case against relying on future technologies

Q: Let’s be honest here. Even with all the budgets and technology in the world, we can’t turn back time. Temperature and sea level rise, desertification, fires…all will not be eradicated, despite our best efforts

“On the one hand, I really believe that technology will save us, in many ways. But on the other hand – I disapprove as viewing tech as a kind of messiah,” Lev Ami provides a surprise response. “I don’t like the thought that thanks to the existence of technology, we are exempt from the hard work of emission reduction. So much of what we really need hasn’t been invented yet – carbon capture, large-scale biofuels, energy storage on national level for months, accessible alternative protein…

“Time is of the essence, and we can’t spend our days pondering future technology. We must succeed in doing as much as possible where we currently stand, based on current technology. This requires resources, effort and sacrifice -- on both the personal and national level. So to sum up: technology – yes, exemption from action in the name of technology – that’s a no.”

Q: What should be PM Bennett’s central message in Glasgow?

“I think Israel is in a position where it should mostly bring back messages from the conference, not provide any. Over the past few months, there has been a more active climate discourse in Israel, which I welcome. The new government seems to realize the importance, at least as far as statements. But Israel is late to the table and must catch up to the world. So I think that the main message to take home from Glasgow is ‘let’s get cracking’.”

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