Today, 5th June 2012 marks UN World Environment Day with the ‘Green Economy’ as its theme. As Spain grapples with 24% unemployment, a double-dip recession and a potential banking meltdown, should it even be thinking about greening its economy? Surely the environment should be the last thing on the agenda.
Actually now is exactly the time Spain should consider reviving its ailing finances through a more sustainable economy. The monetary value of nature and the water, food, energy and clean air it provides, is enormous. The resilience of the global economy is intricately linked to the environment; and the maths for a global green economy doesn’t just make environmental sense but economic sense.
Each year, around the globe, we’re losing ecosystem services worth around €50 billion. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global energy demand will grow 36% by 2035, with the clean energy industry worth €5 trillion by 2015. Overall costs of climate change will be equivalent to 20% of global GDP annually, while taking action now would cost only 1% of annual global GDP. Turning to the sea, the world’s commercial fisheries face collapse in 50 years unless current trends reverse. In the Caribbean, coral reef destruction has meant a 20% decline in tourism revenues (equal to €240 million per year).
Moreover, there’s evidence that green initiatives are bearing fruit. The Brookings Institution reported that the ‘clean economy,’ in the US was employing approximately 2.7 million employees – more than fossil fuel companies and 4.5 million US jobs in clean energy are forecast by 2030.
How could the ‘Green Economy’ help Spain?
Shifting to a green economy could become Spain’s new engine of development. If Spain becomes a global leader in this area it stands to capture a share of the low-carbon energy market set to be worth €1.7 trillion by 2020. It’s already way ahead of the energy diversification game compared to its European peers, getting a third of its energy from renewable sources in 2010. This is partly down to Spain’s abundance of clean resources. The most mountainous country in Europe with 4,964 km of coastline and 340 sunshine days make it one of the richest nations in sun and wind - ‘green gold’. Spain is the world's fourth biggest producer of wind power and an estimated 550,000 green jobs put it above the European average. Companies such as Iberdrola are also linking with other countries in renewable energy partnerships.
However, despite this record, there’s evidence the government is not doing enough to foster green economics and may be backtracking. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says that income from environmental taxes form a smaller proportion of Spain’s GDP than any other European OECD country.
Spain also needs to dismantle subsidies for fossil fuels. According to Spain’s national grid, Red Electrica, coal subsidies doubled the energy output from coal-fired plants from 8% to 15% in 2011. This year the government scrapped renewables subsidies and though reducing its subsidies to the coal sector, the industry will still benefit from €111 million. Also Spain is forging ahead with oil exploration plans in Sevilla and Jaén at a cost of €8 million and prospecting off the Málaga coast in a 150,000 hectare plot. Several campaigner groups have protested about the environmental impact and cost.
Environment versus construction
With a fifth of Spanish land and sea earmarked for protection, and half the land devoted to agriculture, Spain has a fertile and biodiverse territory, which if used sustainably would allow the country to cash in on rising food prices, increased interest in organic produce and eco-tourism. However, the biodiversity and heritage of Spain is under constant attack. Recently the government announced plans to relax coastal planning regulations and unique biospheres that endangered wildlife depends on are under threat from development, habitat destruction and pollution. The UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Cabo de Gata natural park in Andalucía is threatened by a megaproject on its perimeter. Ecologistas en Accion claims the project ‘undermines environmental legislation, and violates the park’s classification as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.’
In San Lorenzo de El Escorial, home of Philip II’s magnificent monastery, the local council is trying to change regulations to enable the construction of flats near the monastery which could endanger the site’s UNESCO world heritage status - worth much in tourism revenues. The local mayor claims the housing is needed for young people, but local environmental group, Entorno Escorial claim an existing subsidised housing project in the area - Unamuno - still has unsold houses. The town council is already indebted and, to complete the housing project, will need a loan of €2 million, €1 million of which will go to the local Carmelite nuns for the land. Meanwhile, local taxes have risen 14% this year and social services have been slashed.
Constructing ‘white elephant’ projects is the last thing the Spanish economy needs given its banking problems stem from bad construction loans. One hopes Spain does not follow the path of biodiversity destruction seen in other nations such as the UK.
Worst polluter in Europe
Though Spain is a leader in wind and solar energy, according to European Environment Agency, Spain as a nation of petrol-heads was the only EU country to fail three out of four criteria tests for pollution. Barcelona and Madrid were found to be the two EU cities with the greatest atmospheric contamination. This causes 16,000 premature deaths annually and the proliferation of various respiratory diseases. It also creates a significant cost to the tax payer in health service provision.
The ‘dead sea’
Spain is one of the highest consumers of seafood in Europe and industrial overfishing has led to political and economic crises. Spanish fishing practices have exacerbated the situation as Spanish fleets have continued overfishing and thrown dead fish back into the sea when their catch exceeds quotas. The good news is that action has been taken under pressure from the EU, with Spanish fishing chiefs agreeing to phase out discards over the next four years.
Will Spain do what it needs to in these tough economic times?
When the world’s most influential economies sit around the table at the Rio+20 conference later this June to hammer out sustainable development agreements, the environment ministry will have Spain’s future in its hands. As Sr. Jiménez Herrero of Spain’s Observatorio de la Sostenibilidad says: ‘The environment is part of a valuable natural capital to be recovered and is, in the case of Spain, an important asset, since Spain is the most biologically diverse nation in Europe. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in line with the common position of the EU should boost its efforts towards achieving a global commitment aimed at achieving truly sustainable development globally.’
With over 50% youth unemployment, and figures showing Spain’s manufacturing industry is the worst performing in the Euro zone, Spain should grasp the opportunity to lead the green economy and benefit from a surge in green collar jobs. Now is the time for Spain and Europe to set the agenda for transition to a green economy, stimulate desperately needed growth and create sustainable prosperity for the future.