The Battle for Planet Earth

Wednesday, June 16, 2021 11:00 AM

The climate crisis is here and the forecasts for the future are grim: if we do not take action now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, our children and grandchildren will suffer. In honor of World Environment Day, celebrated on June 5, Dr. Doron Markel, KKL-JNF's Chief Scientist, tells us about Israel's position on coping with the climate crisis, on the environmental challenges facing it, and about its achievements as well.

By Metal R. Fishman
Translated from the original Hebrew article on YNET, 03/06/2021

Rehabilitated Tzippori River. (Photo: Israel Perez, KKL-JNF Photo Archive) 

Huge wildfires in Australia and California, heat waves in Europe, floods in India and the Philippines – the extreme climatic events that occurred in recent years, are the unmistakable results of the global climate crisis. "The climate crisis is a proven scientific fact", explains Dr. Doron Markel, KKL-JNF's Chief Scientist. "The reason for the crisis is global warming, caused by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and deforestation. We are already seeing the results in the form of extreme global climate events".

Unfortunately, the forecast for the coming years is not encouraging. "If we do not awaken and act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, our children and grandchildren will suffer", he warns. So what can be done? And, what role does Israel play in coping with the climate crisis? Actually, quite a lot.

"In Israel, which is considered a climate hotspot, we have seen an average temperature rise of two degrees Celsius compared to the 1970s. Although Israel cannot significantly affect global emissions, it most certainly contributes to the response to the problem, thanks to the many innovations developed in the country," says Dr. Markel. Since he took on the position of KKL-JNF's Chief Scientist about two and a half years ago, coping with the climate crisis has become a major priority in the organization. Below are some examples.

A Breath of Green
Israel is one of the few countries in the world that can boast more trees today than there were a hundred years ago. There are more than 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) of planted forests in Israel, an amazing achievement when you consider that we live in a semi-arid environment. Afforestation is one of the activities most associated with KKL-JNF since it was established in 1901. It turns out that our founding fathers were wise: forests in Israel play a major role in meeting the challenges of the climate crisis. The trees and forests contribute significantly to improving the quality of the air, serve as buffers against noise and pollutants and are a major factor in sequestering carbon dioxide (forests in Israel absorb over 3 million tons annually).
Yatir Forest in the southern Hebron Mountains, the largest planted forest in Israel, is one of the remarkable examples of the environment's effect on climate. "The Yatir Forest is an example of ecological forest maintenance", says Dr. Markel. "Studies show that the Yatir forest sequesters atmospheric carbon at a rate similar to that of temperate European forests. KKL-JNF continues preserving the forests in Israel, increases the diversity of trees in planted forests and even integrates afforestation in urban and peri-urban areas in the form of community forests".
Dr. Doron Markel, KKL-JNF's Chief Scientist. (Photo: Yaron Charka)

Storing Energy
One of the major methods of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the use of renewable energy – sun, wind and water energy ". Israel does not have significant waterfalls that can be harnessed for energy, wind turbines are limited and harm birds, therefor the focus here is on solar energy, he explains. However, although Israel has no lack of sunshine, we are still far from optimal use of this resource: only 7% of Israel's energy comes from the sun. The main challenge facing solar technology says Dr. Markel, is storage. "Storing solar energy is not possible in winter and at night. There are energy storage systems, but they are not economic and they pollute the environment".

KKL-JNF is establishing an innovative center focusing on the climate crisis and will support research and development of new technologies for solutions in the field of ecology and the environment, including solutions for the storage issue. "Throughout the world the search is on for a breakthrough, and I believe that it will come from Israel, where innovation thrives. We cooperate with world Jewry and know how to work with both national and local government offices, which provides us with a great advantage in coping with the climate crisis", he says.

Solar Expansion
Small, densely populated Israel faces an additional challenge on the way to extensive use of solar energy: we do not have enough space. "We do not believe the country should use its limited open spaces for solar fields", declares Dr. Markel. And this is where KKL-JNF comes in. KKL-JNF's 230 water reservoirs in Israel today are ideal for this purpose. "A water reservoir covered in solar panels will contribute to renewable energy", he explains. "Another available resource is agricultural areas. Today we can already see cowsheds with solar roofs that serve as a source of energy. The problem is with trees and field crops, where the plants and the panels compete for solar energy". The possible solution is combining solar panels and agriculture (agro-voltaics) that will allow the solar energy to be used by crops and for energy production. "In France and other countries the technology is beginning to be used in vineyards. In Israel, we have not yet had a breakthrough. We lack research, therefore we at KKL-JNF are encouraging agro-voltaic research and development", he explains.
Rehabilitated Nahal HaKibbutsim (Photo: Yaakov Shkolnik, KKL-JNF Photo Archive)

Making the Most of Every Drop
Climate change also affects Israel's natural water resources. "Lake Kinneret is Drying Up" and "Preserve Every Drop" are sayings we have been hearing since childhood. In recent years, although saving water is no longer a conversation topic, Israel still suffers from a shortage of natural water, which is expected to worsen in the future. KKL-JNF and the Israel Water Authority as were purifying sewage early as the 1980s, to a degree that would allow the water to be recycled. This solution increased the supply of water for agriculture, prevented water and soil pollution and reduced the amount of potable water used for crop irrigation. According to Dr. Markel, about two thirds of the water used for agricultural irrigation is purified wastewater, thanks to the many water reservoirs KKL-JNF constructed throughout Israel – of which about 230 were built by KKL-JNF.

On the Riverbank
For many years, all the streams flowing into the Mediterranean Sea suffered from serious pollution, because of water shortage and sewage diverted into them. During the last decade, KKL-JNF has been intensively promoting activity to rehabilitate Israel's streams and rivers. "When a stream is polluted, the entire ecosystem surrounding it is affected – plants, fishes, mammals, birds and all other organisms. The water in a polluted stream is dark and emits a bad odor. A polluted stream also affects the public, which cannot enjoy it. Our vision for the coastal streams is that only natural or highly treated waterwill flow in them", says Markel.
The Sharona Reservoir. (Photo: Albatross, KKL-JNF Photo Archive)

"River rehabilitation", he explains, "is a complex process that includes several actions: regulating the stream drainage system, soil conservation, stabilizing banks to withstand floods, expanding the flow channel and creating a buffer between the stream and agricultural areas, pollutant removal, rehabilitating or developing water sources along the flow channel, rehabilitating the river ecosystem and the like".

"The climate crisis is at our doorstep", concludes Dr. Markel, "but the varied activity conducted in Israel in the field of renewable energy and water, in which KKL-JNF plays a major role, creates an atmosphere of optimism".