Climate Change and Clean Tech in Israel

January 12, 2010
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McKinsey report front picture Israel is a small country of 7.5 million people with an oversized political and media footprint. It also has a growing carbon footprint problem on its current development path, as noted in the November 2009 McKinsey report on Greenhouse Gas Reduction Potential in Israel (the 5-page summary is in English, click here for full Hebrew version). At the same time, Israel has a very strong clean tech sector, with the potential to make a huge contribution to reducing global emissions.

The country faces a serious long-term strategic threat from climate change. The largest population centers are along the coastal plain, just a few meters above sea level, and regional projections point to a decline in winter precipitation of 10-20%, increasing the likelihood of severe droughts. Although more than half the population considers climate change to be a serious threat, there has been little governmental attention to emissions until recently, and even the McKinsey report neglects the potential physical impacts of climate change.

During my visit to Israel in December 2009, I gave a talk at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, on climate governance (drawing from A Tale of Two Meltdowns), and my Israeli colleague from the university organized a meeting with the Minister of Environmental Protection, Gilad Erdan, and several of his staff, to talk about Israel’s plans for reducing GHG emissions and ways of engaging Israeli industry. Historically, environmental protection has been a relatively low priority in Israel, in light of more pressing security and economic development concerns. Israel has a standard of living approaching European levels, yet because it’s still classified as a developing country in the climate regime, it did not have binding obligations under the Kyoto process. Nevertheless, Erdan has been pushing for the country to adopt aggressive emissions targets, and is seeking ways to get the government as well as industry on board.

The key to advancing the climate agenda in this particular environment is to link it to other national priorities, in order to elevate its strategic significance and build the political coalition needed for action and investment. The Environment ministry recognizes this, and the McKinsey report notes four benefits that would accompany climate action:

Israel climate benefits action

An important motive for Israel’s ambitious GHG goals is to graduate from developing to developed country status, with a view to joining the OECD. This would offer broader economic benefits through trade and investment as well as improved international legitimacy. Israel’s active engagement in promoting clean development regionally and supplying critical technologies for global emissions reductions would also bolster its international status, enhance exports, and potentially provide a source of carbon credits.            

Energy security is clearly an important goal, as Israel is almost completely dependent on imported fossil fuels, including natural gas from Egypt. Yet current thinking is that energy security means independence through greater reliance on local renewables, primarily solar. My own view is that energy security can be linked to national security and pursued through regional energy collaboration, primarily with Egypt and Jordan. Though the McKinsey report lists solar power, both CST (concentrating solar thermal) and PV as the single largest contributor to Israel’s GHG reduction potential, the reality is that suitable land is quite limited, even in the southern Negev desert. Collaboration with Egypt and Jordan would open up the possibility of developing a regional grid drawing from large-scale CST in the Sinai desert, southern Jordan, even perhaps northern Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the intermittency of solar can be somewhat offset when complemented with wind power, which has very limited potential in Israel (McKinsey estimates at around 600MW), but is far more abundant in neighboring countries.

Of course, Israel does not want to be dependent on its Arab neighbors for energy. A regional grid would provide security through interdependence. Israel could be a key supplier of technology, as well as a conduit of power between Egypt and Jordan. Economic and technological collaboration on the scale required would also, one hopes, improve political relations. During the 1950s and 1960s, Israel made considerable diplomatic gains in Africa and parts of Asia from its contributions to international economic development. More ambitiously, if a Mideast regional grid were tied into the proposed Desertec supergrid, European participation would provide a strong political guarantee of supply security, as well as smoothing out supply intermittency issues (update: PWC released a report in April 2010 with a roadmap to 100% renewable power based on an integrated Europe-N. Africa supergrid).

DESERTEC supergrid

Israel has a strong clean tech sector as part of the larger high-tech cluster and entrepreneurial culture in the country (see Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle). The solar thermal and PV clusters are particularly well developed, and the country is home to major firms in water purification and desalination, geothermal energy, and other areas (see here and here, and Jonathan Shapira’s excellent blog on Israeli clean tech). The internal market, however, is far too small to benefit very much from Israel’s own emissions reductions efforts. The large economic payoff will come from exports, technology licensing, and international joint ventures in which Israel is the source for R&D, software, and high value components. BrightSource Industries Israel, for example, a descendent of the CST pioneer Luz, is now a subsidiary of California-based Brightsource Energy, and supplies R&D, engineering services, and key components for the company’s global markets. In fact, the Israeli tech sector is remarkable for its success despite the absence of advanced local markets – during my MBA at Tel Aviv University, I wrote some case studies on how Israeli companies operated within virtual clusters, with their major markets and sources of capital in Europe and the US.

Israel’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Potential

Though Israel’s total emissions are tiny in global terms, at 71 MtCO2e in 2005, they are growing rapidly, and expected to double by 2030 in a “business as usual” scenario. Emissions per head are already 10.2 tons, about the European average, and expected to rise to more than 14 tons by 2030. The structural reasons for this relatively high and growing carbon footprint are the country’s dependence on coal for power, under investment in public transportation, weak building standards, and high rates of economic and population growth. The country is also committed to energy gobbling large-scale water desalination projects.

The McKinsey report estimates that implementation of abatement measures could reduce emissions by about 45 MtCO2e, corresponding to 2/3 of the expected GHG emissions growth and about 1/3 of total expected BAU emissions in 2030. Behavioral changes, such as reduced air conditioning and greater use of bikes and public transportation, could reduce emissions by a further 7 MtCO2e. With characteristic optimism, McKinsey suggests that the net cost would be zero, with negative cost activities such as efficient lighting and car engines offsetting more expensive measures such as solar power. McKinsey’s estimates for large quantities of solar PV at a cost of under €10/tCO2e seems unduly sanguine.

McKinsey cost curve Israel

Ten measures account for about 2/3 of the reduction potential:

Major measures

As always, the core question is how to implement these measures. Just because more than half the abatement potential can be achieved at negative cost does not mean that it will occur spontaneously, due to the multitude of market failures and institutional hurdles (see McKinsey’s Expanding Free Lunch Program). McKinsey recommends four rather uninspiring steps for the Israeli government to consider:

1. Establish ambitious national GHG abatement goals as government policy.
2. Formulate Israel’s Low Carbon Growth Plan (LCGP) defining the mechanisms and timing of implementation.
3. Translate the national abatement plan into detailed operational measures including ways to finance the upfront investment.
4. Establish a central body to monitor progress in implementation.

What is really needed, in Israel and elsewhere, is a much broader mobilization of the public, government agencies, and business to position climate change at the top of the agenda as the critical strategic threat of the century. At the same time, it offers unprecedented potential for innovation, economic transformation, and regional collaborations. Outside the clean tech sector, Israeli business does not yet take climate seriously – my own research shows that the best way to shift perspectives is to engage people with leaders in the field. In addition to the targets and implementation plans, the Israeli government could partner with charismatic climate champions such as Shai Agassi and local clean tech companies to promote the issue and organize a high profile conference of international businesspeople, policymakers, and experts to jumpstart the process and generate local commitment.

One Response to “Climate Change and Clean Tech in Israel”

  1. David,

    We blogged about your story here: