Cut and dry

You don’t want to die. Not in a catastrophic flood
caused by the melting of the polar ice caps. Not in a
monstrous hurricane spawned by unnatural weather
patterns. Not of thirst, after all your local water
sources have dried up in a relentless series of heat
waves. You don’t want to suffer the fate promised to
you in An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s over-the-top,
Oscar-winning movie about the impending doom of global
warming.

So, you listen to Avi Harel, CEO of Vortex Ecological
Technologies, and take solace in the company’s
solution, which makes pollution and global warming
nothing more than a tempest in a teacup.

With the company’s Advanced Vortex Chamber, industrial
emissions stream into a cone-shaped device that
accelerates the flow of gas through a spiral, creating
a kind of cyclone. Into that maelstrom, a cleansing
liquid is sprayed. Droplets of this liquid attach to
hazardous particles that a factory would normally
belch into the air we breathe. In the chamber,
however, they are shuffled into a separate container
where they are rendered into either an easily
treatable powder or a liquid fertilizer.

Harel claims the company’s products can neutralize 99
percent of the poisonous sulfurous gas particles
emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, and that
they’ll also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by
10%-15%.

‘That’s enough,’ he says, ‘to make a difference.’

Indeed, while removing pollutants is boon enough, the
Advanced Vortex Chamber’s reduction of CO2 is much
more significant when it comes to fighting global
warming. CO2 is by far the biggest factor in creating
the greenhouse effect that is, almost all scientists
now agree, behind the record temperatures being felt
around the world. And it is produced mostly by
factories and power stations – precisely Vortex’s
target customers.

There’s just one snag: Vortex currently has systems
that can handle only smaller factories and power
stations. It would take a sizable contract with a
large facility – like the oil refineries in Haifa or
the Hadera power station, both of which are currently
in negotiations with Vortex – for the young company to
be able to produce a system on a larger scale. Until
that happens, Vortex can only go so far.

Although the company has contracts with some
Scandinavian companies, and it is in talks with firms
in the US, ‘Israel is not much of a market for us
yet,’ Harel admits.

In a sense, then, Vortex is representative of Israel’s
efforts at confronting global warming. There is plenty
of potential here, but it is not being realized. The
country is merely taking baby steps toward progress.

AS IT IS, Israelis’ environmental record is a poor
one, from picnickers littering in parks to industrial
factories dumping toxic chemicals into rivers and
streams. More than these, though, government inaction
is the main reason for pessimism that the country will
turn its act around to handle a problem as large as
global warming.

‘The government isn’t doing much at all about the
issue, really. There just isn’t enough shock yet. No
one’s trying to actually make things better,’
complains Dr. Eli Galanti, fellow and research
coordinator at Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of
Environmental Studies.

Just because Israel contributes very little to the
problem of global warming – the scale of our industry
and of our transportation system simply pales in
comparison to nations like the US and China – doesn’t
mean that we should contribute little to its solution,
Galanti says. After all, we’ll feel the effects just
the same.

That could mean more forest and bush fires, more
invasive species or pests, a delayed growing season or
any of several other ill effects of global warming.

‘We will have hotter and slightly longer heat waves in
the summers,’ Galanti says. ‘That may seem trivial,
since it’s already pretty hot here, but it’s not
trivial at all. A major implication is a drop in the
amount of rainfall we get, since even a minor change
could mean trouble for our drinking water supply.’

The water supply is already precariously low, thanks
to skyrocketing demands on our modest resources from a
burgeoning population and from an agricultural
industry that farms crops with high water needs.

Several answers to these problems are already here. In
addition to techniques of drip irrigation that Israel
has mastered, universities and private firms are
developing methods of raising crops that grow well in
our climate with much less water. Ending water
subsidies for farmers producing water-intensive crops
could bring those methods into wider use. Such a step,
however, is not on the government’s agenda.

Neither is it clear when or even if the government
plans to build desalination plants that would increase
the amount of water available, despite the fact that
Israel boasts the world’s largest seawater reverse
osmosis desalination plant, in Ashkelon.

Another step, installing water saving devices
throughout the country, remains just an idea.

‘If every household were fitted with water saving
devices – at a cost of NIS 185 million – we could save
NIS 375 million in a year. So, in six months, that
project would pay for itself. Yet the government won’t
make that investment,’ bemoans Noga Levtzion-Nadan, an
environmental economist.

‘The government thinks so short-term… but for
environmental issues, you can’t just think short-term.
The problems are all long-term,’ she says.

BACK TO carbon dioxide: The government is choosing to
continue to produce more of it, when clean
alternatives are available.

Over the objections of the Environmental Protection
Ministry, the National Infrastructure Ministry plans
to push through construction of a third coal-burning
power plant in Ashkelon to meet the ever increasing
electricity demands of the country. Meanwhile, plans
for a non- polluting solar power station in the Negev
continue to drag on fruitlessly, thanks to
administrative delays.

Although National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin
Ben-Eliezer says the government is committed to its
2006 decision to produce up to 10% of the country’s
electricity through renewable energy in 10 years, the
plans to construct another coal-burning power plant
are an indication that there is little action behind
those words.

‘[The decision] is not moving and not being
implemented in the field because this plan has not
been placed very high on the national agenda,’ Dr.
Yishayahu Bar-Or, the Environmental Protection
Ministry’s chief scientist, told The Jerusalem Post
recently. ‘Right now the government is dragging its
feet on this.’

‘It’s bizarre that Israel hasn’t invested heavily in
alternate fuels and energies,’ says Tel Aviv
University’s Galanti.

It’s not only bizarre but economically misguided, says
Levtzion-Nadan, who has carried out extensive research
on the government’s budgetary commitment to
environmental policy.

‘If 10% of our energy consumption came from renewable
energy sources, over 20 years we would save NIS 9
billion. Yet in the budget, Israel invests only NIS
2.1 million per year in renewable energy. It’s a
joke.’

What’s more, there are hidden costs to the ostensibly
cheaper fossil fuels.

‘We pay about NIS 4.3b. per year – in health costs,
lost labor costs, lost tax revenues, etc. – because of
our complete reliance on fossil fuels, and the health
hazards they cause,’ says Levtzion-Nadan. ‘We don’t
see that cost at the gas pump, or in our electric
bill, so we think that those things are cheap. But the
cost is there. It adds up and has an effect on the
economy. We all pay the price for that way of life.’

FORTUNATELY, there are also positive developments,
although they are small.

The government has ordered that oil-burning power
stations change over to natural gas, for example.
Burning natural gas still contributes to the
greenhouse effect, but to a significantly lesser
extent, and it pollutes much less as well.

The Finance Ministry announced last month that it
would exempt a new electric scooter from purchase tax,
to make the clean-running vehicle more attractive. Tax
on the two hybrid cars available here, the Toyota
Prius and a hybrid model of the Honda Civic, is
already a fraction of the tax on other cars.

Diesel emissions standards, unchanged for 30 years,
have been updated so that older, polluting models will
be taken out of use.

‘The things that we have accomplished, just in the
transportation field and just in the past year and a
half, have been significant,’ says Shuly Nezer, head
of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s air quality
department. ‘And there’s hope that we can make even
more changes.’

Nezer notes that there is now a ‘green taxation
committee’ in the Finance Ministry, working together
with the Environmental Protection and Transportation
ministries to classify vehicles according to their
emissions. It is conceivable, she says, that higher
efficiency vehicles, such as small cars, modern
diesels and scooters and motorcycles, could receive
tax breaks in the very near future.

‘We are also working to make Israel more efficient in
its energy usage,’ Nezer adds. ‘We have put out a call
to local councils to use more efficient lighting on
roads, for example. As we explain, these steps are not
just good for the environment, they are more
economical in the long term.’

While government efforts to fight environmental damage
began in earnest a decade ago, they are finally
bearing fruit now, thanks in part to a larger public
awareness of the problem and pressure from an
increasing number of environmental groups.

As Nezer says, Israel has a long way to go – but it
has also come a long way, too. Despite being
classified as a developing country in the United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the
country’s greenhouse gas emissions per capita are on
par with levels in superstrict Western Europe.

‘We are not China and India,’ Nezer says, referring to
two of the largest polluter states. ‘It’s true that we
could do much more. But things are beginning to
change, they really are. What you see here today is
much more advanced than it was five years ago. I am
very optimistic.’

UNTIL NOW, economics has been used as an excuse for
inaction on pro-environmental projects. Ultimately,
though, financial concerns may end up as just the
thing that pushes Israel to act.

As noted above, several policy changes would provide
financial savings over time, in addition to their
positive environmental impact. At some point soon, the
benefits of change will become too evident to ignore –
and they may serve officials who care less about the
environment than they do about their ability to fund
some other project with the savings of an
environmental one.

Already, the private sector is showing an interest in
environmental issues.

What more and more people are discovering, says
Levtzion-Nadan, is that ‘companies that manage their
environmental obligations are often well managed in
general. If they have a sound, coherent strategy for
dealing with environmental issues, they usually have
sound, coherent strategies for other areas of
operations as well. So it’s a very good way to
evaluate companies, from an investment standpoint.

‘In fact, I do that a lot for investors. Investors
need to have a complete view of a company; they need
to know everything about the company. They are now
starting to realize that if a company pollutes today,
it’s going to be looking at a fine, or at the costs of
a clean-up, or at a major lawsuit.’

So maybe Avi Harel will soon be getting more calls at
Vortex’s headquarters in Haifa.

‘Not only can we help the environment,’ he says, ‘we
can help companies save money.’ And that, as he
already mentioned, is enough to make a difference.

(Box 1) From Kyoto to Kiryat Ata

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro produced the
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
– a series of agreements, or protocols, aimed at
reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Five years
later came the Kyoto Protocol, which further outlined
the terms of those efforts. In doing so, it has become
more famous than the original treaty.

The 169 signatories of the Kyoto Protocol (including
Israel) commit to reducing their emissions of carbon
dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride,
HFCs and PFCs. The new target levels are only modestly
lower than 1990 levels – but, due to the growth in
emissions since then, that represents a much more
ambitious goal.

Well-developed, industrialized countries bear the
brunt of the responsibility for reducing greenhouse
gas emissions, facing significant financial penalties
for not meeting targets. Meanwhile, still developing
nations are not obligated to make the same kinds of
changes to their infrastructure, as the process of
industrialization that creates greenhouse gases is
considered vital to those countries’ ability to
improve their weak economies.

Kyoto creates a financial incentive for industrialized
countries to help developing countries in two ways. In
the first, an industrialized country that fears it
will not meet its emissions targets can purchase
so-called carbon credits in developing countries (the
investment from which is meant to be used by the
poorer country to develop). These credits, being
tradable, have become a kind of commodity in
themselves, and are even being traded by investors
without any connection to their environmental impact.

The second option is for industrialized countries to
earn credits by investing directly in a ‘clean
development mechanism’ – a project to reduce emissions
– in a developing country. Last year, Israel’s
Environmental Protection Ministry announced that the
country’s nine CDMs would bring about 15 million Euro
into Israel’s economy. About 40 percent of that came
from just one CDM, a project at a chemical factory in
the Haifa Bay area. Currently, there are 15 CDMs in
Israel, and the ministry is actively seeking more
prospective projects.

(Box 2) What can Israel do?

‘Sustainable development doesn’t mean going back to
living in the Stone Age,’ says environmental economist
Noga Levtzion-Nadan. ‘It means recognizing that our
resources are limited, and finding ways to manage
those resources as best we can.’

The following are some suggested ways of better
managing Israel’s resources.

Steps the government could take to reduce CO2
emissions:

*Building solar energy power plants instead of coal-
burning power plants.

‘Today, solar energy is absolutely worthwhile in
Israel. Unfortunately, what’s holding it up is
bureaucratic snafus,’ says Shuly Nezer, of the
Environmental Protection Ministry. ‘Without a doubt,
if there were the will to do so, this could be
achieved immediately.’

*Strengthening – and, more importantly, enforcing –
restrictions on pollution and CO2 emissions.

‘Industry will move forward only if enforcement is
tough enough. otherwise, it’s too cheap to just
continue polluting,’ says Levtzion-Nadan.
‘Furthermore, there has to be consistency from the
government. If, for example, a company feels that
today’s stiff regulations won’t be in effect five
years down the road, then it probably won’t bother to
comply today. Why should it?’

Steps the government could take to increase the
country’s drinking water supply:

*Ordering the installation of water-saving devices;

*Building more desalination plants.

In October 2006, a little more than a year after it
commenced initial production, the seawater reverse
osmosis desalination plant in Ashkelon delivered its
first 100 million cubic meters of water. The plant
produces around 13% of the country’s domestic consumer
demand at one of the world’s lowest prices for
desalinated water.

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