Living in greenery-covered booths called sukkot (singular: sukkah) during the seven-day Jewish holiday of Sukkot has a dual purpose.

Agriculturally, this holiday celebrates the end of the fruit harvest. Spiritually, it reminds us of the huts (or divine clouds, according to some biblical scholars) that protected the ancient Israelites during 40 years of harsh desert trekking after they fled Egyptian slavery.

If we look at Sukkot from an environmental perspective, we can find another message: Today, it is up to us to provide our own protection from extreme weather around the world.

And considering the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s latest report, we are dangerously running out of time to do so.

What can we do to protect ourselves from a climate crisis of our own making?

It is unequivocal

The IPCC’s alarming report on the status of climate change was a collaboration by 234 scientists spread across 60 countries.

They all agree that human activity is “unequivocally” causing rapid changes to the global climate: rising sea levels, melting glaciers, and more frequent and intense heatwaves, floods and droughts.

Humanity’s main contribution to destabilizing our climate is burning fossil fuels—coal, oil and natural gas— which emits an unprecedented 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

Due to unceasing industrial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the deterioration of the world’s natural carbon sinks, like forests and coral reefs, the rate of global temperature rise is increasing. We may cross the lower warming threshold set by the Paris Agreement (1.5°C above average pre-industrial levels) as early as the next decade.

If this happens, heatwaves, droughts and wildfires would become even more frequent, and winter precipitation events could become much larger and occur over shorter durations, creating more floods.

Additionally, our ability to produce food agriculturally will be put in serious jeopardy, thereby kickstarting widespread food insecurity.

Limiting global warming to less than 2°C, to which the countries of the world have committed by signing the Paris Agreement, requires an immediate halt to the increase in GHG emissions and reach a zero balance of emissions by 2050.

That will require balancing the volume of emissions to equal the planet’s absorption capacities so that a net addition of GHGs into the atmosphere will be zero.

Achieving 100% capacity 

After years of stagnancy, the Israeli government has finally approved a state budget for combating the climate crisis.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg said the program is intended to promote renewable energies and other environmental technologies, facilitate the transition to green transportation, update waste infrastructure, and initiate a reduction in polluting carbon emissions.

It is no secret that Israel has lagged in its transition to renewable energies. According to the Knesset Research and Information Center, the rate of renewable energy production made up about 5% of the country’s total electricity consumption in 2019, and in 2020, it only grew by an additional 1%. This, of course, failed to meet the Ministry of Energy’s target of achieving a 10% threshold by 2020.

Last year, the Ministry updated its 2030 renewable energy targets to 30% generation, but it is still a relatively low target compared to other countries. For instance, in Scotland 90.1% of all electricity in 2019 came from renewable sources, and a renewable energy capacity of 100%is the goal within the next few years.

For a country so rich in sunshine and technological development, why is Israel’s renewable energy usage so low?

“The main problem is that this is a long-term investment. You have to spend a lot of money today to see the benefits that come many years in the future,” says researcher Miki Arzuan of Afeka College of Engineering in Tel Aviv.

“It is difficult for governments to make such moves because they are often not the ones benefitting from the result. However, it is a responsible decision that must be made now for the future of us all.”

According to Arzuan’s colleague Nitzan Ben Mocha, one reason why the state has not taken more ambitious steps is because of its current investment in natural gas.

“The discovery of Israel’s large Mediterranean gas fields has lowered the country’s motivation to make massive investments in renewable energies,” he says. “The burning of natural gas still pollutes and emits carbon dioxide, and in the process of producing it, methane gas is emitted into the atmosphere.”

But beyond the environmental and economic aspect, the transition to renewable energies would enable Israel to become truly energy independent.

“Before natural gas was found in Israel, the state had to rely on other countries to sell it coal or oil to generate electricity,” says Ben Mocha. “Even today, if God forbid the gas rigs are damaged, we will be in serious trouble.”

Presented at the 49th Annual Conference for Science and the Environment, a new Israeli study details how Israel can achieve 100% electricity generation from renewable sources by 2030.

Enough space, sun, wind

According to Arzuan, Ben Mocha and Prof. Moshe Tzuva from Afeka’s department on power and energy engineering, Israel has enough space, sun and wind to achieve 100% electricity production from renewable sources.

They claim that the transition to renewable energy would become economically viable within a few years.

Because the production technology of solar and wind energy is modular, it is possible to set up facilities of different sizes as needed.

The researchers recommend dividing Israel into five distinct areas according to the existing Israel Electric Corporation districts and establishing a microgrid within each of them, independent of the central grid for best efficiency and cost savings.

According to the researchers’ calculations, about 300 square kilometers of land would be needed to reach the 100% renewable energy goal. However, the vast majority of the intended area is currently designated for agriculture.

“The state has to decide that it is sacrificing many areas that are designated for agriculture in order to establish renewable energy infrastructure in them,” says Arzuan. “Although this is a painful move, there is no choice.”

However, it is hoped that technological solutions will enable the dual use of agricultural land.

For instance, solar panels could be placed on an elevated frame, allowing agricultural cultivation beneath them with the proper mechanization.

Because sunny and windy conditions are not constantly available, the study considers the widespread use of energy storage facilities as well.

Costly but affordable

According to the study, the cost of the project is estimated at NIS 250 billion (about $78 billion) —more than half of the entire state budget for 2021 that was recently approved by the government.

While this may seem like an excessive financial burden, Arzuan and Ben Mocha see it differently. If you deduct the cost of setting up power-generation facilities from polluting fossil fuels, the cost of the fuels themselves, and the cost of their emissions, the amount comes down to NIS 106 billion($61 billion) spread over 10 or 20 years.

“In the past, the costs of generating electricity from renewables were very high, but over the years they have dropped significantly, and we have reached a point where they are even lower than those of electricity generation from fossil fuels,” says Arzuan.

“The decision to transfer the entire country’s electricity generation to renewable energies can cause the cost of electricity in Israel to fall, end air pollution, lower the rate of respiratory illnesses, and over the years, we will even make money back thanks to the savings it allows.”

According to IPCC scientists, we still have a chance to limit global warming at the end of the 21st century to less than 2°C if we drastically reduce GHG emissions by 2050. Even though it is now almost unrealistic, there is still a chance we can stay below the 1.5°C threshold.

If we continue with business as usual, we can expect our planet to become 5°C warmer on average compared to pre-industrial temperatures by the end of the century.

Let us look to our sukkot as an urgent reminder that it’s up to us to protect ourselves from bitter weather conditions carelessly spiraling out of control.

Max Kaplan-Zantopp writes for ZAVIT Science and the Environment News Agency. He prepared this article in collaboration with Amnon Direktor of ZAVIT and Adi Levi, scientific director of the Israeli Association of Ecology and Environmental Sciences and head of the Division of Environmental and Sustainability at Achva Academic College