Israel will play a leading global role in climate technologies, especially in reducing emissions in agriculture and in removing and storing carbon, the UN’s chief designer of a universal carbon trading market said at the first Israeli conference on carbon capture on Thursday.
Special guest Perumal Arumugam told dozens of innovators, government officials, scientists, investors and representatives of not-for-profit organizations that the carbon capture sector had a “big future” and that Israel could be a market leader.
“Don’t wait for new rules. Start now, it’s about learning through doing,” he said.
Carbon capture refers to technologies meant to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and either reuse it in industrial processes or store it for a long time. It can be removed by restoring natural systems that would normally absorb carbon dioxide, or by developing technology to capture the gas from the air.
Earlier this year, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear that carbon removal is essential if the world is to meet the Paris Agreement’s climate goals of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), compared with pre-industrial times, and if governments and companies are to meet their low or net-zero pledges.
Technologies for carbon capture and storage, also known as sequestration, are at an early stage worldwide. But interest in the field is growing. According to veteran environmental activist Maya Jacobs, one of Thursday’s conference organizers, more than 20 Israeli companies are involved in different aspects of carbon sequestration at this time.
At the conference, entrepreneurs presented projects ranging from deep-sea cultivation of seaweed, which captures carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, to conversion of organic waste into biochar, a kind of nutrient-rich light coal that can help nourish soils.
Arumugam said he saw particular global potential in two of the projects described: Israeli drip irrigation company Netafim’s water- and methane-saving system for irrigating rice, and Albo Climate’s system for analyzing satellite imagery using deep learning to map, measure and monitor carbon sequestration.
“Currently, monitoring has to be physical,” he explained to The Times of Israel. “You need to take a sample (for example, of soil), go to a lab and it costs a huge amount of money in terms of the transaction cost. If newly available imaging tech can bring down costs, it will pave the way for people to use carbon markets on a larger scale and that’s where I believe you [Israel] can be a one-stop-shop solution for monitoring carbon emissions worldwide.”
The Foreign Ministry’s climate envoy, Gideon Behar, said the conference was aimed at kickstarting a carbon sequestration community in Israel, which would help the authorities to understand the great need and huge opportunities in the field.
Carbon trading and offsetting is not an alternative to cutting emissions. Rather, it helps cap the total amount of carbon that can enter the atmosphere and turns it into a commodity worth money. It does this by enabling companies — and countries — that are unable to completely eliminate their emissions to balance them out by investing in projects that reduce emissions.
Israel currently has no coherent policy on carbon capture, conference participants said.
The Energy Ministry’s roadmap to a lower carbon economy by 2050, published last year, did note the importance of carbon capture and storage and called for regulations to be formulated to allow the field to develop.
The ministry’s chief scientist, Gideon Friedmann, told the confab that the ministry’s R&D branch wanted to see startup companies in this field, and had commissioned the Geological Survey to pinpoint sites with the potential for carbon burial.
But the Environmental Protection Ministry had its own priorities, according to Director-General Galit Cohen, who also addressed the conference, and carbon capture and sequestration were not among them.
She shocked the gathering by saying that at present, carbon sequestration systems consumed energy, sometimes in the form of fossil fuels, but yielded little benefit.
“Carbon capture may be a solution, but it won’t be the big solution,” she said.
The technology was not ready to be implemented at scale, she went on. The priority had to be replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, making energy use more efficient, and making industry cleaner and construction and agriculture less carbon-intensive. It was also essential to protect natural systems (such as forests and wetlands) that absorbed carbon dioxide, she added.
The Environmental Protection Ministry came in for particularly harsh criticism from conference participants, who said at a series of roundtable discussions that officials showed little interest in them. The officials lacked knowledge about carbon capture, displayed a generally negative attitude, and were not developing the standards and regulations that the companies critically needed.
One woman said that while climate technology companies were already looking ahead to 2023, government officials were stuck with attitudes from the mid-1990s.
The same woman also attacked the Innovation Authority, tasked with fostering the development of industrial R&D in Israel, saying she had neither “the time nor the nerves” for the bureaucracy involved in trying to get financial support. “They don’t understand the issues of climate and clean tech,” she charged.
Another company executive said it had taken him 15 years to get a business license for his innovation and that the ministry had sent him to costly private consultants because it was unwilling or unable to answer his questions themselves.
Many participants thought the government should establish a special carbon sequestration directorate to plan and coordinate what was needed in the field. A directorate was set up for the natural gas industry even before gas was discovered, the conference heard.
The Environmental Protection Ministry responded in a statement that Israel, like the world, was focused on speeding up implementation and improving the efficiency of a “wide range of technologies” to reduce global warming gas emissions.
“In-depth strategic work led by the ministry shows that it is possible to significantly reduce greenhouse gases… by implementing and improving existing technologies, with an emphasis on renewable energies combined with energy storage, transportation and industry production lines and energy efficiency,” the statement said.
“Therefore, the Ministry is of the opinion that the maximum efforts should be concentrated in the implementation of the strategy and plans to reduce emissions.
“The carbon fixation that was presented at the conference is still in its infancy and there is still no proven and commercial technology in the world for long-term fixation of large volumes of greenhouse gases.
“As these technologies mature, it is estimated that their contribution to reducing greenhouse gases will be marginal in relation to technologies of renewable energy and energy efficiency.”
The Innovation Authority responded, “Climate-tech is one of the issues that the Israel Innovation Authority has set as an area of strategic investment due to a shortage of private capital.
“However, as noted in our Climate-Tech report released earlier this year, together with PLANETech, there are not currently as many companies operating in the field in Israel as the Authority would like to have. Specifically, in the field of carbon reduction, the number is still in single digits.
“Moreover, the technologies are not developed enough to be ready for investment. In fact, we have only received 3 applications in total in this field.
“The opportunity therefore for the Authority to make investments in R&D projects in this field is currently limited. In light of this, the Authority is making an effort to incubate new companies and projects, for example, through the establishment of new technological incubators in the field of Climate-Tech (announced in February this year), which we hope will bear fruit in the coming months and years.
“We continue to work closely with the Ministry of Energy, the Ministry of Economy, and the Ministry of Finance, to promote grants for pilots in this area in order to help young companies experiment with their prototypes in an applied, real-world scenario.”
Last month, the government approved a NIS 3 billion ($870 million) plan to boost climate innovation.
Thursday’s meeting, held at Kibbutz Shefayim in central Israel, was organized by the Climate Rehabilitation Network, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Israeli Business Round Table, 2B Friendly, PLANETech and KVS — a green consultancy.
It may have been the first carbon-neutral conference in Israel; its emissions were calculated and are to be offset by investments in carbon sequestration projects.