COP26 > Casa Rosada, CC BY 2.5 AR, via Wikimedia Commons.

As the world gathers in Glasgow for the COP26 climate conference, Israel has featured prominently so far – for both positive and unexpected reasons.

A recap

  • COP26 is a UN conference bringing together more than 200 world leaders to move forward global efforts against climate change.
  • This COP – or Conference of the Parties, i.e. the countries signed up to the 1994 UN Framework Convention Climate Change – is the 26th since 1994, and was due to take place last year before being delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • COP26 is taking place between 31 October and 12 November, though most activity involving world leaders takes place in the opening days.
  • Israel is represented by a delegation of 120 people, led by prime minister Naftali Bennett and including ministers, Knesset members and civil society leaders.

Net zero by 2050

Two days before the start of the conference, prime minister Naftali Bennett and energy minister Karine Elharrar announced that Israel was pledging to decarbonise its economy by 2050. This deadline supersedes a Netanyahu-era commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The shift brings Israel into line with most developed countries – including the UK, US, Canada, France, Australia and Germany – to commit to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Climate innovation nation

Israel’s commitment to decarbonise by 2050 was rooted in its identity as the ‘start-up nation’:

  • “Israel is the ‘innovation nation’ and has the ability to contribute the talents and creativity that only we have in the world”, Bennett said last week. “We are responding to the global challenge, finding technological solutions and joining in to achieve this important goal”.
  • Speaking in Glasgow on Monday, Bennett likewise said that Israel could leverage its technological creativity to find solutions “that have not yet even been imagined.” He added that Israel was “at the beginning of a revolution” with regard to climate innovation.
  • “If we’re going to move the needle, we need to contribute Israel’s most valuable source of energy – the energy and brainpower of our people”, he continued. “This is what fuels our innovation and ingenuity. This is where Israel can make a real difference”.
  • Bennett also pointed to Israel’s track record of environmental success: “We may be in one of the driest places on Earth, but we managed to become the world’s number one country in water innovation”.
  • Appealing to Israeli entrepreneurs in his speech to COP26, Bennett challenged them: “Instead of building yet another hyped-up app, why don’t you launch start-ups that will help solve this global threat?”
  • This appeal followed an announcement on Monday that Israel would set up a fund to encourage local tech entrepreneurs to invest in experimental green technology, for which large amounts of capital would be required.
  • The Prime Minister’s Office has outlined a number of environmental steps Israel will take, including developing technology for solar power storage, carbon trapping, and education on energy conservation.
  • Environmental protections minister Tamar Zandberg pointed to an end to oil and gas development, a gradually introduced carbon tax, an end to coal usage by 2025, and a new climate law as some of 100 practical steps towards combating climate change her department has identified.
  • Recent steps already taken by Israel include a tax doubling the price of single-use plastic, and the inclusion of $195 million of climate funding in the state budget proposals.

Holding their feet to the fire

Perhaps inevitably with an issue as pressing as climate change, environmental activists have been keen to hold Israeli politicians accountable for their climate responsibilities. Last weekend saw 12,000 people march through Tel Aviv in Israel’s biggest climate demonstration to date, attended by Israeli Labor leader and transport minister Merav Michaeli, under the slogan “Time has run out for the leaders, there’s no place for declarations, only immediate action”. Meanwhile, two teenagers active in the Israeli Fridays4Future youth movement – Alma Pomagrin, 15 and Lia Lev, 16, both from the Tel Aviv area – have attended COP26 itself and delivered a letter to Bennett signed by 524 young Israeli activists. “The bitter truth is that our country’s current targets for renewable energy and emissions cuts are disappointing and insufficient”, the letter said, appealing to Bennett to “listen to the voices we bring with this letter, in the name of the youth of Israel, and adopt more ambitious goals for renewable and emission reductions”. Bennett praised Pomagrin and Lev and promised to meet with the duo in Israel.

Less positive headlines

The Israeli delegation at COP26 has also featured in headlines for altogether more unexpected reasons. Energy minister Karine Elharrar was denied access to the conference venue on Monday due to the entrance to the conference building being inaccessible to wheelchair users. After being refused entry, a shuttle transport alternative was unable to resolve the situation due to not being wheelchair accessible itself. Elharrar was forced to return to her hotel in Edinburgh as a result. UK environment secretary George Eustice said that the government “deeply regretted” the treatment of Elharrar, who has muscular dystrophy, and said that the lack of arrangements owed to a miscommunication. Elharrar entered the conference alongside prime minister Bennett without issue on Tuesday, following an apology from prime minister and host Boris Johnson, who invited Elharrar to join his bilateral meeting with Bennett.

On the sidelines

Alongside the issue of climate change, COP26 has also provided an opportunity for world leaders to meet and discuss other issues. Bilateral talks included a meeting between prime minister Bennett and French president Emmanuel Macron, in which they discussed Iran’s nuclear program and continued uranium enrichment. Likewise, in a meeting with Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, Bennett urged Morrison to ensure that Australia – which currently sits on the board of the UN atomic agency – rebukes Iran for breaching its nuclear commitments, and to follow through with an Australian parliamentary committee recommendation to proscribe Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist group. Bilateral meetings between Bennet and the leaders of the UK, Italy, India, Bahrain and NATO are similarly likely to see tense discussion of regional security issues alongside the climate.

Progress so far

COP26 has already seen some progress towards dealing with the climate crisis:

  • More than 100 countries, including Israel, promised to end and reverse global deforestation by 2030, in the first major deal. The agreement commits nearly $20bn towards reforestation by countries making up around 85 percent of the world’s forests.
  • More than 80 countries, including Israel, have signed up to a Global Methane Pledge to cut emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas, by 30 percent by 2030. Methane is responsible for a third of current warming from human activities.
  • Israel has joined more than 40 countries to announce greater cooperation to dramatically expand the uptake of affordable clean technology through global standards in an initiative called the Breakthrough Agenda.

What happens next

Although most world leaders will leave in the coming days, COP26 will continue through to 12 November. With some progress made already, it seems clear that Israel intends to take a leading role in the effort to combat climate change.