Israel Environment Bulletin Spring 1996-5756, Vol. 19, No. 2


by Dr. Eran Feitelson
Department of Geography, Hebrew University of Jerusalem


In the nine years which have elapsed since publication of Our Common Future, the need for sustainable development has become widely recognized. It is now clear that in order to promote the implementation of sustainable development principles, a long-term sectoral policy should be formulated. Such a policy must be based on an integrated vision which will maintain the quality and quantity of natural resources and will minimize exposure to nuisances in a multigenerational perspective.

A sustainable development policy can neither be formulated nor implemented in one step. It is a long process, beginning with wide discussions on goals and objectives and continuing with recommendations on the steps and measures which are necessary to reach the objectives. Israel’s preliminary document on sustainable development (a short summary of which is presented here) is expected to provide a basis for this process. Various parts of the document were prepared within the framework of the 2020 masterplan, Israel’s masterplan for the 21st century which is expected to provide a comprehensive framework for the country’s long term strategic planning.

(For further details on the 2020 plan, see the Spring 1995 Bulletin, Vol. 18, No. 2).

Sustainable Development – The Questions

Two basic questions must be answered before a sustainable development policy can even be proposed: 1) What is sustainable development and 2) what is the spatial application of a sustainable development policy.

The starting point for most discussions on sustainable development is the definition provided in the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) which defines sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." However, opinions on the means of implementing such a policy are more divergent. The central question relates to the limits of environmental and natural resource damage in the short term which will not impair the welfare of future generations.

The following basic approaches to this question have been formulated in the literature by such writers as Pearce, Turner, Toman and others:

Preserving the welfare of future generations while allowing for infinite resource substitution (Very-Weak Sustainability); Preserving safe minimum standards (Weak Sustainability); Preserving natural capital (Strong Sustainability); Preserving a steady state (Very Strong Sustainability).

Very Weak Sustainability (VWS)

The principle underlying this approach is to preserve the overall stock of capital assets over time. This capital consists of natural capital

(natural resources), human capital (education and human ability) and man-made capital (infrastructure, production capacity). This school of thought maintains that it is possible to compensate future generations for the degradation of natural resources as long as the cost of such damages is incorporated in the national accounting system and invested in human capital or man-made capital for the benefit of future generations. The main criterion for assessing development is cost-benefit analysis, in which any damage to the natural capital is included in the calculation of costs.

Weak Sustainability (WS)

This approach identifies environmental subjects according to two criteria: cost and irreversibility. Where damage is expected to be irreversible and expensive, the rights of future generations must be secured through the formulation of restrictions or minimal standards. Where damage is reversible and not expensive, economic incentives are in order. Certain damages may be permitted in the short term in exchange for investment in the creation of another type of capital.

Sustainable Development (SD)

Unlike the weaker versions of sustainability, the sustainable development approach calls for the preservation of a fixed (not minimal) level of natural capital. This approach posits that since at least some natural capital is non-substitutable and since many ecosystem functions and services cannot be adequately valued in monetary terms, natural capital should be kept constant and should be monitored and measured via physical indicators. Damage to certain natural resources may be allowed as long as compensation is obtained through investment in similar environmental resources (e.g. afforestation in exchange for deforestation).

Very Strong Sustainability (VSS)

According to this approach, the scale of human activity should be limited relative to global carrying capacity, and therefore the exchange rate of matter and energy in the economic system should be minimized. In order to support such an environment, zero economic growth and zero population growth are required. In practice, this approach has not been implemented in national or regional sustainable development policy.

Impacts of Sustainable Development Approaches on Environmental Issues


In the water sector, policy issues should relate to the following questions regarding both quantity and quality: 1) how to supply the required quantity of water, and especially how much water can be safely pumped from Israel’s main water reservoirs, and 2) how best to protect water quality over time, and especially how to prevent the contamination of water resources as a result of human activity or the salination of water sources as a result of overpumping.

According to the most extreme environmental approach (VSS), a steady state of water production should be maintained and damage to water quality should be prevented at all costs. This would require maintenance of high groundwater levels to facilitate rinsing of groundwater and prevent aquifer salination, the allocation of water to flora and fauna in order to protect the entire stock of natural capital, and stringent protection of water quality. In line with this approach, the entire country would be viewed as a sensitive region from the viewpoint of groundwater quality, all wastewater would be treated to a tertiary level to enable reclamation and reuse, water conservation would be promoted to reduce urban demand, and cuts in agricultural allocations would be made in order to increase water allocations for flora and fauna.

At the other extreme, the very weak sustainability (VWS) approach would require all consumers to pay the full cost of use, including impacts on future water quality. All costs would be internalized through impact fees, including the costs of water use, sewage disposal, and water and sewage infrastructures.

The two intermediate approaches would call for the establishment of red lines relating to water pumping from Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and the aquifers, but the SS approach would call for a wider safety margin which takes drought years into account. Furthermore, the SS approach would relate to the entire country as a sensitive region from the point of view of groundwater while the WS approach would designate only the most sensitive areas as areas slated for groundwater protection.


Sustainable land development relates to two basic issues as well: 1) land use, especially identification of land which should be preserved as open space, and 2) land quality.

The most extreme environmental approach strives to preserve a steady state, largely through minimizing the quantity of land available for construction. Building would be encouraged on inferior land from the viewpoint of natural resources, damage to open spaces would be minimized, and use of urban and underground areas would be maximized. A switch to organic agriculture would be encouraged to minimize pesticide use and preserve land quality.

The SS approach would define numerous ecosystems as vital and would establish limits on development to ensure their protection. The WS approach would concentrate on identifying the most sensitive ecosystems for protection and would determinine minimal protection measures to prevent irreversible damage. The SS approach might limit pesticide use while the WS approach might advocate the imposition of taxes on fertilizer and pesticide use.

On the other side of the extreme, the VWS approach may find it sufficient to collect a realistic rent (which would include the cost of externalities) from all land uses. If it is anticipated that a specific use will be so detrimental to future generations as to preclude alternative land use (e.g. a hazardous waste site), its rent would incorporate the cost of this loss as well.

Air Resources

Two issues have been identified with regard to air resources: 1) reduction of greenhouse emissions, as part of the global effort to slow down climate change and 2) reduction of population exposure to local or regional air pollutants. Still another issue relates to the emission of nitrogen oxides, which are a major component of photochemical pollution, and are easily transported to distant areas.

The VSS approach would reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases and nitrogen oxides to the lowest levels possible, using extreme measures, such as restrictions on vehicle use, obligatory switch to clean energy

(gas, solar, etc.), and establishment of stringent emission standards for all energy users. The SS approach, on the other hand, would seek to prevent air quality deterioration through incentives for more efficient energy use and for compliance with regional standards.

The safe minimum standards approach would emphasize compliance with regional standards while permitting trade in emissions. The VWS approach would emphasize appropriate pricing of present energy use, and would impose taxes on energy use and possibly on regional pollution as well.

Ecological Resources

The VSS approach would seek to prevent all damages to ecological resources, and may require the closure of wide areas to human intervention. The SS approach, on the other hand, would advocate the management of open spaces on the basis of carrying capacity and maximal protection of endangered species so that limits on the number of visitors to sensitive areas may be placed.

The WS approach would close off only those areas in which species are endangered. Outside such areas, open spaces would be managed using regulative and economic measures. Pricing of open space use according to resource sensitivity may also apply to the VWS approach. Both intermediate approaches may allow for extreme human intervention with a view toward preserving ecological assets, such as transfer of endangered species to artificial environments (e.g. botanical garden) or creation of artificial ecosystems as compensation for damages to natural ecosystems.

Solid Waste

The two components of the solid waste problem include: 1) treatment and disposal of domestic waste and 2) treatment and disposal of hazardous waste.

According to the VSS approach, the quantity of discarded waste must not exceed the capacity of natural systems to degrade the material. Therefore, all hazardous waste would be recycled or incinerated within safety limits, and most domestic waste would be recycled, especially non-biodegradable components. Since large-scale recycling is not yet viable, waste would be minimized at source.

The SS approach calls for optimal rather than maximal recycling. Waste recycling would be subsidized by the state, at a scope which would cover the damages caused by landfilling or incineration. Since the damages caused by disposal are a function of the carrying capacity of the site, the disposal of hazardous waste would be more expensive than the disposal of domestic waste, and its recycling would be more heavily subsidized.

The WS approach would require solid waste disposal sites to reduce groundwater contamination to a minimum by means of standards and realistic pricing of landfills and waste transport. The VWS approach would emphasize realistic pricing of all aspects of waste disposal, including the cost of potential groundwater contamination and potential nuisances caused by landfilling.

Spatial Aspects

An important issue in discussions on sustainable development is spatial application. Generally, the spatial scope of environmental problems does not conform to administrative borders. The problem is two-fold: 1) how to deal with subjects which transcend national borders and 2) how to deal with subjects which transcend municipal borders.

It is expected that Israel will incorporate the requirements set by international conventions and trade agreements into its sustainable development policy. However, some of the subjects which are not "covered" in international conventions relate to regional issues which have been intensified with the advent of the Middle East peace process. On the one hand, the peace process opens the possibility for increasing regional cooperation especially through joint management of sensitive ecosystems; on the other hand, the peace process may aggravate such environmental problems as traffic and congestion. Both the Israel-Palestinian Environmental Agreement and the Israel-Jordan Environmental Agreement relate to issues of sustainable development and management of natural resources.

An equally important question relates to the lowest spatial level in which sustainable development policies may be implemented. While the subsidiarity principle of sustainable development calls for environmental problems to be solved at the lowest spatial level possible, this is not always possible. Since environmental subjects usually do not conform to administrative borders, a local authority may find it difficult to implement a sustainable development policy within its own jurisdiction. It is therefore important to propose solutions for dealing with regional subjects, which transcend municipal borders, but are not national in importance.

Still another question relates to the manner in which certain types of spatial development impact the achievement of sustainable development. This is especially true with relation to municipal development. The spatial significance of the sustainable development policies which are outlined in this document will be discussed within the framework of the Israel 2020 masterplan and within the frameworks of metropolitan plans which are now in preparation.

The Objectives of Sustainable Development Policy in Israel

The sustainable development policy which is proposed for Israel has three primary goals: intergenerational equity, intragenerational equity and increase in household disposal income (economic growth).

Intergenerational equity means that future generations will be at least as well off, from the point of view of well-being, as present generations. The level of welfare of the present generation is the minimal level of well-being in a multigenerational perspective. This does not mean that there will not be environmental deterioration, but it does mean that everything should be done to prevent damage which threatens the recovery of vital or rare resources.

Intragenerational equity means that the well-being of strong groups will not be at the expense of weaker segments of the population. Therefore, environmental quality should be improved in areas in which weaker groups are concentrated.

Economic growth is presumed to be a precondition for sustainable development. However, expanding the resource base which is available to the economy cannot be based on new sources alone, but should rest on more efficient utilization of existing sources.

The proposal for sustainable development which is forwarded in this document is based on the integration of the economic approach and the ecological approach. According to this approach, minimal standards should be defined in order to prevent severe and irreversible damage to future generations and to provide the environmental quality to which all residents of the country are entitled. However, in addition to these minimal standards, additional environmental improvements should be required which will be attained through incentives rather than government regulation. Therefore, Israel’s proposed policy includes regulative, economic and educational components as well as an investment policy which aims to improve present conditions in specific areas and in specific subjects.

The following objectives are proposed for a sustainable development policy in Israel. The first three objectives contribute to the achievement of intergenerational equity while the second objective also contributes to the goal of economic growth. The last two objectives promote the third goalwhich is frequently neglected in sustainable development programsintragenerational equity:

To secure maximal freedom and opportunity for future generations to determine their environment and style of life, especially in light of increasing pressures on land and other natural resources in Israel.

To encourage developments which internalize environmental impacts. Development should increase the stock of resources at the disposal of the economy. While economic growth should be encouraged through physical development and through policy measures, development costs should incorporate environmental costs so as to limit damages to resources and environmental quality.

To maintain minimal standards for the prevention of irreversible and expensive damage to vital or rare natural resources so as to protect Israel’s resource reservoir.

To assure a reasonable quality of life and the environment to the entire population, including weak segments and minorities. Everything should be done to minimize the growing gap in the environmental quality which is available to different population groups and to actively work on behalf of environmental improvement in neglected areas.

To expand environmental awareness beyond state and administrative borders in view of the sharp rise in transboundary pollution. Institutional structures should be established to facilitate cross-boundary (both municipal and national) environmental awareness and action.

Implementation Measures

In order to achieve the goals and objectives of sustainable development, an integrated policy which consists of numerous elements must be implemented. The following eight policy tools have been identified:

1. Establishment of "red lines" for resources:

In order to preserve the widest range of choices for future generations and to establish minimal standards which will prevent irreversible damage to natural resources, red lines which limit resource use should be established. Red lines are stringent limits which are not subject to deviation without wide public debate and decision making at the highest levels. Monitoring systems should be operated to ensure that red lines are preserved in practice.

Red lines have long been a feature of water resource management in Israel in relation to pumping from Lake Kinneret and from groundwater resources. More recently, they have been proposed for effluent quality for irrigation purposes. Other areas in which red lines should be defined include land resources, ecological assets and air quality. Israel will have to define the minimum number of areas which must be preserved as open spaces and to define red lines within open space areas in order to secure the preservation of unique or vital ecosystems. In the realm of air quality, regional standards for a number of pollutants already exist, but action plans for reducing pollution in case of deviation need to be formulated.

Since red lines constitute minimal standards for natural resource protection, higher levels of protection should be sought in practice. However, such levels should be able to compete against other social objectives. Therefore, the best way to achieve higher levels of environmental quality is through economic instruments, as discussed below.

2. Use of economic instruments to attain environmental improvement:

One way of making environmental policy more efficient is through economic measures. Pollution taxes and tradable/marketable permits, for example, enable society to comply with environmental guidelines while minimizing economic costs. They may even provide a source of funding for environmental improvements.

One of the most important economic measures proposed for Israel is the creation of dedicated budgets. Funds which originate from fines imposed on violators of environmental laws or from environmental fees and taxes are used to improve environmental infrastructures and attain environmental goals. Comprehensive environmental investment programs should be prepared in order to concentrate the income from as many sources as possible and invest it in the most important environmental areas from a national perspective.

3. Establishment of minimal environmental standards for all sectors of the population:

In order to promote intragenerational equity, the goal of assuring a reasonable quality of environment to the entire population should be promoted. Minimal standards should provide for the environmental rights of all residents of the country, including the right to a reasonable standard of living and to a pollution-free environment. This will assure that weak and minority groups will not become exposed to environmental hazards due to their inability to identify them, demand appropriate protection, or protest the siting of polluting facilities in their vicinity. Where minimal standards are not observed, the state must take action to improve conditions. Priority in the allocation of resources for environmental goals should be given to those places whose population does not enjoy the defined minimal standards. Such environmental improvement programs should constitute part of the national environmental investment policy discussed above.

In addition to minimal standards, desirable standards should be defined as well. These rights will not grant residents veto power over developments in which deviations of the higher standards may be expected, but they will grant residents the right to financial compensation. This will form the basis for a system of trading or pricing of environmental credits, which will contribute to the incorporation of environmental costs in development plans.

For example, residential development may be prohibited in areas exposed to certain noise levels. If residential zones already exist in such areas, action plans should be prepared for relocating the population or reducing the noise. However, a lower noise level may be defined as well which would require the payment of compensation for decreased property value and financing of acoustic treatment in case of deviations from this level.

4. Incorporation of the economic valuation of resources and environmental issues into decision making:

Today, environmental aspects of projects are considered during the planning process, both in the framework of outline plans and deliberations of planning commissions. However, planning is only one phase in the decision making process, and not all decisions are limited to land use changes which require permits under the Planning and Building Law. Therefore, it is essential to include environmental considerations at the stage of economic assessment. For this to take place, resource depletion or environmental changes should be quantified in monetary terms.

Until recently, the economic valuation of natural resources and environmental quality was not included in cost-benefit analyses. As a result, environmental debate was often limited to the ethical-moral dimension, without the required backing of economic assessment tools. Today, sustainable development programs emphasize the importance of the monetary valuation of environmental issues and their incorporation in decision making. It has been proposed that the economic valuation of environmental issues should constitute an integral part of cost-benefit analyses which are presented to the Israel Ministry of Finance.

5. Establishment of a green accounting system:

In order to integrate environmental issues into the national accounting framework, two steps are required: routine monitoring of the stock of natural capital and monetary valuation of this capital. However, since difficulties still exist in setting a monetary value on natural capital, recommendations focus on the need to set up a green accounting system which would assess the changes in the stock of natural capital.

The establishment of a green accounting system would also be advantageous as a base for identifying cumulative damage. Routine monitoring of environmental quality and follow-up on the natural resource base would enable the identification of problems which require treatment before they reach significant proportions.

A national system for following up on changes in Israel’s natural resource base should be accompanied by Geographical Information Systems, in which data on the inventory of resources in different points of time and in different areas would be stored. GIS systems will also facilitate planning decisions on the appropriate siting of different land uses.

6. Preparation of sectoral and regional sustainable development programs:

Sustainable development is not limited to the national level, to a single ministry or to a specific body. It requires discussion on a variety of subjects and on a variety of spatial levels, by as many bodies as possible. One of the objectives of sustainable development programs is environmental consideration at the very earliest stages of decision making, before planning and implementation take place. One of the ways in which this objective may be fulfilled is through the provision of project-specific environmental guidelines to developers.

In addition to statutory plans and physical plans, other plans may be included in this category: sectoral plans (e.g. industry, energy, tourism and transportation) to reduce nuisances and environmental problems caused by different sectors, and regional plans to coordinate between the activities of the different sectors in a given area. Such plans may incorporate, inter alia, guidelines for the prevention of cumulative damage and conditions for trade in emissions. A third type of plan may be a natural resource management plan at national or regional level. Examples of such programs include plans for the management of water or land resources, or plans for the management of a specific basin, such as the Lake Kinneret Basin.

7. Institutional changes to ensure environmental and natural resource protection:

In order to transform the concept of sustainable development into a reality, all relevant authorities and population groups should view sustainable development as a common goal. The establishment of sectoral or regional programs for sustainable development is one means of encouraging the integration between sectors and populations. However, structural changes are necessary as well, since administrative frameworks frequently dictate policy directions. For example, the inclusion of the Israel Lands Administration and the Water Commission in the Ministry of Agriculture in the early 1960s reflected the priority which was once granted to the agricultural sector in the allocation of these resources. New conceptions may require new structural forms.

In addition, coordinating bodies on environmental issues which transcend municipal borders should be established. Such bodies may operate in the framework of existing associations of municipalities or as administrative bodies with statutory authority for specific natural resources or difficult environmental problems. Joint bodies for the management of natural resources which are common to more than one state, such as marine and water resources, may be necessary as well.

8. Research and education:

The implementation of sustainable development policy is based on innovative research, new data, and changes in approaches and attitudes by wide segments of the population, including decision makers.

Environmental subjects should be integrated into all levels of education. During the Year of the Environment in Israel, a wide range of new material was produced and valuable experience in teaching environmental subjects was accumulated. Today, the challenge is to assimilate this subject into formal and informal education. Environmental disciplines should also be included at university and college levels for two purposes: to train professional manpower in the different environmental subjects and to expose as many students as possible to the subject in order to increase general awareness.

To encourage changes in attitudes and to utilize increased awareness, wide publicity should be given to such measures as eco-labelling and green consumerism. This, in turn, will encourage "environmental behavior" on the part of companies and plants in competitive markets.

To widen the circle of knowledge required to implement sustainable development programs, environmental research must be encouraged in both the private and public sectors. A first stage in a long-range research program may be exemplified in the current initiative of the Ministry of Science to create a system of environmental research which will link basic and practical research. Within the framework of environmental research programs, vital development directions should be identified, such as the development of emission reduction technologies or lower cost water desalination. It will be necessary to identify areas in which original Israeli development should be subsidized and areas in which it would be best to rely on the transfer of technologies from abroad..


The formulation of a sustainable development policy is a long process. The recommendations forwarded in this proposal constitute only a first step on the road to sustainable development. These steps are not the sole concern of environmental bodies alone; they must be integrated in the activities of all public organizations and must affect the behavior of producers and consumers throughout the economy. In order to do this, Israel will have to initiate a process of communication, consultation and negotiation with numerous interest groups. The real test of this document will lie in its ability to transform the concept of sustainable development into an operative objective by as many bodies as possible.