Spain to be hard hit by climate change

Chislett021723InsideSpain Spain to be hard hit by climate change

Spain, one of the EU countries most affected by the climate crisis, has a climate change law since 2021 and is quite advanced on renewable energy, but needs to do more.

Spaniards love jamón ibérico de bellota, a revered ham, but it could be scarce in the future or in an extreme case disappear because of climate change. Rising temperatures –last year was the hottest on record in Spain and the third driest– threaten a key part of the pigs’ diet: acorns.

Spain is one of the EU countries expected to be affected the most by the climate crisis. Rainfall in the poor region of Extremadura, one of the main producers of ham, has fallen by around 35% in the past 50 years. Some 20% of mainland Spain is already desertified, due to climate change and human responsibility, such as overexploitation of water, particularly groundwater extraction, and 74% is at risk of desertification. The Doñana National Park in Andalucia, home to one of Europe’s largest wetlands, is under threat from intensive farming.

Spain has many reservoirs to ensure the availability of water, a lot of which were built during the Franco regime (1939-75), but they rely on rainfall. The country experienced its longest-running drought in 2022 since records began in 1961, according to AEMET, the meteorological agency, although rain last December and part of January this year has improved the situation. The total water in reservoirs was at 51.3% of capacity at the end of January, up from 44.8% a year earlier but below the 10-year average of 57.8%. The reservoir at Buendía, one of the biggest, a village where I have a house, is at 24% capacity.

The country emits around 0.8% of the world’s greenhouse gases and accounts for 9% of the EU’s gases (the sixth-largest emitter). Spain’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions peaked at 8.47 tonnes in 2005 and dropped to 4.92 tonnes in 2021, as measures to combat climate change began to bite and the country became more environmentally conscious (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Per capita carbon dioxide emissions, 2005 and 2021, selected countries (1)

Tonnes per capita 2005Tonnes per capita 2021
(1) Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry. Land use change is not included. These emissions account for around 76% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
Source: CAIT Climate Data Explorer via Climate Watch, with data available at Our orld in data.

Spain, after Portugal, is the most worried among EU countries about the impact of climate change, a concern that has topped Spaniards’ foreign policy priorities since 2017, ahead for example, of aid for developing countries, according to Elcano’s barometers, although worry over energy security is rising following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It took Spain 10 years to adopt its first Climate Change and Energy Transition Law, which Parliament finally approved in May 2021.

This commits the country to cut emissions by at least 23% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels (see Figure 2). The law requires companies, banks and other firms to present an annual report on exposure to climate risks as well as on measures to arrest them, and the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge (MITECO) is charged with producing a report every five years on risks, policies and measures.

Figure 2. Highlights of Spain’s climate law

Climate neutrality by 2050 at the latest, meaning that in 2050 Spain will only emit the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that its sinks can absorbAn end to the production of fossil fuels on Spanish territory by 31 December 2041 and restriction of fossil fuel subsidies
At least a 23% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 (from 1990) with periodic reviews to increase ambition, the first taking place in 2023Prohibition of new fossil fuel exploration on Spanish territory, as well as uranium mining or fracking
An electricity system where 74% stems from renewable energy sources by 2030 and 100% by 2050Low emission zones in all municipalities over 50,000 inhabitants and in any over 20,000 with bad air quality before 2023
Application of Just Transition strategies, to be reviewed every 5 yearsDevelopment of a housing rehabilitation and urban renewal plan within the first six months of the law’s entry into force
A 39.5% reduction in primary energy consumption by 2030 (from 1990)Electric vehicle charging stations in all petrol stations, 150kw for major ones, and 50kw for all others
A ban on new internal combustion engines in cars from 2040A requirement for corporate climate action plans with measures to reduce emissions over five years
Source: European Climate Foundation.

The Popular Party (PP) and the hard-right populist VOX are contesting the prohibition of fossil-fuel production, and the creation of low emission zones in municipalities with more than 50,000 inhabitants was not achieved on time. The Housing Law is currently under negotiations in parliament.

Spain has significantly moved from fossil fuels and is already quite advanced in the use of renewable energy. Just over 40% of electricity was generated in 2022 by renewable energy sources, the largest part being wind power. Spain has Europe’s second-largest installed wind power (1,265 wind farms in 2021) after Germany and the fifth in the world. Spain’s share of total renewables in electricity production was the ninth largest in the world in 2021 (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Share of renewables in generation of electricity in 2021 (%)

New Zealand80.9
Source: Enerdata, World Energy and Climate Statistics, 2022 Yearbook.

Iberia’s abundance of sunshine and wind also looks set to be a blessing for the wider EU. Spain, Portugal and France agreed last December to move ahead with a sub-sea hydrogen pipeline connecting Barcelona with Marseilles, which is expected to be operational by 2030. Germany joined the project in January. Green hydrogen is created using electrolysers that are powered by renewable energy. France wants to use the pipeline to transport red hydrogen made from nuclear energy in the opposite direction. But it needs to overcome resistance to including red hydrogen in the EU’s renewable energy targets, which focus on green hydrogen.

Not everyone in Spain is happy at the pace of the ecological transition, particularly in what is known as the ‘empty Spain’, rural areas with very low population densities, such as Soria, where giant wind turbines and vast solar panels dominate the skyline. The film Alcarràs about how a solar park uproots and divides a family that has farmed for generations growing peaches in Catalonia was a box office hit in 2022 and won the Berlin International Film Festival’s Golden Bear award, while As Bestas, about a conflict over wind power, won the Goya award in Spain.

All political parties, to varying degrees, believe Spain needs to do more to combat climate change except VOX, 10.2% of whose voters, according to a survey published last month by OIKOS, say the government is doing too much. The results of the survey showed two very different approaches to the problem among the right- and left-wing parties, but there is some room for consensus stemming from the alternative policies.

Broadly speaking, the PP, Ciudadanos (Cs) and VOX want a gradual, flexible and ordered approach, respecting the free market, while the hard-left Unidas Podemos (UP), the junior partner in the minority Socialist-led government, prefers more drastic measures and greater state control of the economy (see Figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4. Environmental policies should be used to promote the market economy and business competition (%)

Strongly agreeSomewhat agreeAgreement total (1)
Unidas Podemos283159
Popular Party304171
(1) The rest of respondents’ answers cover ‘Neither agreement or disagreement’, ‘Somewhat in disagreement’, ‘Strongly disagree’ and ‘Don’t know’.
Source: OIKOS.

Figure 5. Environmental policies should be used to promote social justice, spur equality policies and increase public spending (%)

Strongly agreeSomewhat agreeAgreement total (1)
Unidas Podemos522577
Popular Party212950
(1) The rest of respondents’ answers cover ‘Neither agreement or disagreement’, ‘Somewhat in disagreement’, ‘Strongly disagree’ and ‘Don’t know’.
Source: OIKOS.

As with so many other issues, the very polarised and aggressive political climate does not make for the kind of consensus needed for a successful ecological transition. One can only hope this changes; otherwise, the worst fears of pig farmers might come true, which would be a dark day and not just for Iberian ham lovers.

Image: Drought in the Doñana marshes, natural park in southern Spain. Photo: Mikirabba (Wikimedia Commons-CC BY-SA 4.0).