October 7, 2008

MK Ophir Paz-Pines: Clearing the Air


Knesset Interior and Environment Committee chairman Ophir Paz- Pines (Labor) has wholeheartedly embraced his role as a champion of the environment and goad to the government. Unlike his colleague Dov Henin (Hadash), Paz- Pines is not an environmental activist by profession. A career politician, his causes have included immigrants, pluralism, children of foreign workers, but not the environment. Before being appointed chairman of the committee, the closest he came was as a member of a commission of inquiry into the water issue. He was not even a member of the committee prior to assuming the chair.

However, since taking up the baton, Paz-Pines has become a fierce advocate for the environment. He frequently rails against the Treasury for its "bean-counting" mentality. He has also been a severe critic of the government's lack of environmental leadership.

He has evinced that leadership himself, though. After three years of debate and over the objections of a reluctant and understaffed Environmental Protection Ministry as well as many other ministries, Paz-Pines, along with his colleagues on the committee, managed to pass perhaps the biggest environmental legislation in the country's history - the Clean Air Act.

By holding marathon meeting after marathon meeting, Paz-Pines managed to shepherd the bill into law even after the government brought 200 objections at the last moment. The landmark legislation provides the framework for a national plan to fight air pollution, vastly increased enforcement powers and a whole host of other benefits. Air pollution kills 1,100 people a year in the Dan region alone.

Paz-Pines approaches environmental issues from a public health perspective and has fought for improvements with the express intention of reducing health risks.

He also managed to propose 17 environment-related bills, hold more than 70 discussions in his committee and pass a law to protect the Kinneret's beaches. The Israel Union for Environmental Defense cited him as one of the most prominent advocates of the environment in the 17th Knesset.

(BOX) Paz-Pines's Challenges

While the Environmental Protection Ministry is nominally in charge of environmental issues, it is the National Infrastructure Ministry which faces the biggest environmental challenges.

With control over both water and energy, the National Infrastructure Ministry has the biggest opportunity to promote environmentally friendly policies over the next year and beyond.

The ministry must keep the Water Authority on track to build more desalination plants, to treat and recycle more and more sewage water and to build more and more reservoirs to catch what little rainfall the country is expected to receive this year. Ironically, if it turns out to be a good year for rain, it must keep its nose to the grindstone even more to ensure water security. Desalination plants must go up, since rainfall seems to be dropping off.

Energy-wise, the ministry has announced or launched ambitious conservation and renewable energy plans. National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, or his successor in the event of elections, must turn a lot of fancy ideas on paper into savings and renewable energy production on the ground. Ben-Eliezer has pledged to build one new solar power plant a year for the next 10 years and bring renewable energy up to 20 percent of the energy market by 2020. He has also passed a plan to cut energy demand by 16% in the same time frame. More and more power stations are being switched to natural gas, a lesser pollutant than coal or oil. At the same time, however, he is pushing for a new coal-powered plant in Ashkelon.

If the minister and his ministry live up to their declarations, we could find ourselves living in a less polluted, more environmentally friendly state. But as everyone knows, from declarations and plans to reality is a long way indeed.

Originally published by EHUD ZION WALDOKS.

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