Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Renewable energy is national security

During my time in Israel so far, throughout conversations with various Israelis I have heard the same thing: Israel doesn't have the luxury of worrying about renewable energy when they have so many pressing national security issues.

I think this wrong and short sighted. Removing Israel's dependence on fossil fuels can only strengthening Israel - both in terms of security and economically. Of course, it's also valuable environmentally, but at this point don't think it should be stressed as a primary motivation for taking action.

Over time, I hope to explore the far-reaching national security and environmental repercussions of Israel's dependence on fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal), some obvious and some less obvious, as well as how they affect Israel's relationship with other countries.

You can read my first such post published over at the Times of Israel.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Leaf it to Israel this Tu B'Shevat

This Friday night (Shabbat) marks the Jewish semi-holiday of Tu B'shevat. Literally, the 15th of the month of Shevat is known mystically as the New Year of the Trees.

For people of a certain generation, Tu B'shevat evokes fond memories of donating spare change to the JNF - Jewish National Fund - to support their afforestation efforts in Israel. Afforestation is the concept of planting trees where there were none before (reforestation is planting trees that had once stood, but were cut down). 

Driving through the forests from Jerusalem to Beit Shemesh or around Arad, it's easy to take for granted how successful JNF has been. Less than 100 years before the creation of the state, Mark Twain visited the land of Israel in 1867 and wrote of, " ...[a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds-a silent mournful expanse....There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country." 

Twain would hardly recognize the land today, with 240 million new trees planted. Notably, Israel is the only country in the past 100 years to have a net gain of trees. Numerous countries around the globe are facing desertification - where unsustainably harvested forests suffer from the effects of erosion, which quickly turns into wasteland. JNF's guidance has been sought after by many other countries and international organizations looking for help with their efforts to curb desertification in their own land.

The trees were planted for many reasons: to curb mudslides in the mountainous north, as part of efforts to drain swamp land and make it suitable for agriculture, provide shade in the hot desert sun, and also just to give new immigrants flocking to the country in the first half of the 20th century something to do.

When it came down to what species of tree to plant the decision on Aleppo pine wasn't too controversial - it's indigenous to the region and grows quickly in the rocky soil. It wasn't until many years later, after forest fires started to become a regular concern in the beginning of the 21st century, the the old, homogenous forests started to become a liability.

During the 2006 war with Lebanon, rockets fired by Hizbullah set fire to thousands of acres of trees in in north. Four years later, a devastating fire that broke out on Mount Carmel  Carmel region killed 44 people and consumed 5 million trees. Many fires broke out around the country over the summer of 2012 that were attributed to arson.  Fires were never part of the natural forest ecology in this region, but with this new threat facing the land, how forests are planted here had to be rethought.

Efforts are being made by the Ministry of the Environment with the help of JNF to replant burned forest with a mixture of tree types to help guard against new wildfires sweeping through, as well as to promote the health of the forests in general.

*Bonus* Israeli election day fun fact! The first Knesset convened purposely on Tu B'shvat.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Where is the Israeli Al Gore?

Something I've been wondering while trying to follow the upcoming Israeli election: where is the discussion of energy and environmental issues? Is there no politician focused on this arena? Are the Israelis lacking an 'Ozone Man'?

I began my investigation by checking out the Likud party - the party currently in power, who is also expected to at least retain the Prime Minister position. The bulk of Likud's platform is dedicated to Israel's security, with some ideas for economic and social concerns at the bottom of the list. If the current front-runner for the Prime Minister position, along with the bulk of seats in the Knesset, doesn't mention anything about the environment or energy - can it really be a priority for any of the parties?

Next, I tried to cast a wide net to see where the other major parties stand. The Jerusalem Post has a handy quiz to help you figure out which party is most in line with your values. It's worth noting that not one of the 30 questions asked relates in any way to the environment. There are a few questions regarding social and economic concerns in the society. Ultimately, it seems that the environment isn't anyone's radar.

Professor Adi Wolfson, of the Shamoon College of Engineering Green Processes Center recently explained the silence to the fact that there are no disagreements. The idea being if everyone agrees, what is there to discuss? Professor Wolfson further reckons another, and perhaps more important reason it's not discussed: because voters don't really care. Whether the public doesn't care because too much of their energy is spent on security concerns or due to a culture that just doesn't place value on these ideas, we can hopefully explore at a later time.

Much to my delight, I eventually found that there is one party that explicitly promotes the need for an environmental blueprint for Israel - Tzippi Livni's Hatunah party. Ms. Livini had previously helped to start the Kadima party in 2005, but left it last year. Her new party joined forces with the Green Movement Party and, unsurprisingly, its platform focuses on the environment.

While it can be expected that the Green Movement would advocate sustainability, Ms. Livni's motivation seems to be from a more traditional political perspective: how her platform will create jobs, improve constituent quality of life, and strengthen Israel's energy independence. These don't need to be niche values only taken up by one party. Anyone serious about the welfare of the State of Israel and its people have no excuse not to include these points in their own party's platform.