When it comes to environmental issues, just how ‘green’ is Spain?

Spain wanted to make a splash on the international scene by agreeing to host next month's COP25 climate summit at the last minute after Chile pulled out.

When it comes to environmental issues, just how 'green' is Spain?
Photo: Rogiro/Flickr

But experts say green issues have not been a priority in the country, which has a poor environmental track record.

Only 2.3 percent of all Spaniards consider the environment as one of the country's main problems, according to the latest survey by the state-run Centre for Sociological Studies (CIS).

That compares to 56.9 percent who listed unemployment and 21.2 percent who said corruption were major concerns.   

Like other southern European nations, Spain does not have a significant green party and environmental issues were not in focus during the campaign for the November 10 general election.

They were not even among the themes addressed during the only TV debate held before the polls.

“Environmental problems are not a priority in the political agenda,” said Claudio Cattaneo, an environmental sciences professor at the Autonomouns University of Barcelona. 

“Social inequalities are very high in Spain so the political demands (of the left) are more oriented towards the right to housing than to ecology.”    

The environment accounted for just 0.44 percent of the debate in  parliament between 2011 and 2016, according to a tally kept by the Spanish Society of Ornithology, an NGO dedicated to protecting birds and their habitats.

While ecological issues became a key political theme in Europe, Spain “redesigned its political party system” after democracy was re-established following the death of long-time dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 without making room for green parties.


At the same time European authorities routinely call out Spain for its environmental shortcomings.

According to the European Commission, Spain racked up more infringements of European Union (EU) environmental law between 2015 and 2018 than any other member state — and nearly three times as many as the average for members of the bloc.

In July Brussels asked the EU's Court of Justice to take action against Spain over its “systemic violations” of rules limiting nitrogen dioxide emissions, a poisonous gas in car exhaust.

Spain is also a laggard when it comes to recycling. The country is “far from achieving” the EU goal of recycling 50 percent of urban waste in 2020, the European Commission says.

The situation is probably “linked to the Franco dictatorship, which in its final phase, bet on development at all costs, which continues today,” said Cattaneo.

As a result “mass tourism and construction are the economic motors of the country” along with intensive agriculture, and for these sectors “environmental laws are a problem,” he added.

Wind power leader 

But Spain does have some bright spots when it comes to the environment.    

It is Europe's second-biggest generator of electricity from wind power after Germany and solar power plants are springing to take advantage of the sunny climate.

For over 15 years Madrid has had a special prosecution office for  environmental crimes.

“Spain has worked well to protect its marine environment,” said Enrique Segovia, head of the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund.    

The country has one of the highest shares of protected natural areas among the 36 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), according to the Paris-based group.

The World Heritage-listed Doñana National Park in southwestern Spain is one of Europe's most extensive wetlands and a refuge for migratory birds.

Photo: AFP

But the park, which covers over 54,000 hectares (133,000 acres), is threatened by agriculture and over-exploitation of water.

“Youth is waking up,” said the director of the Spanish branch of Greenpeace, Mario Rodriguez, in a reference to the “Fridays for Future” movement against climate change started by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. 

But the “Fridays for Future” protests held in Spanish cities so far have seen only small turnouts.

 By AFP's Thomas Perroteau 


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Police operation targets illegal water tapping in Spain

More than 130 people were arrested or placed under investigation for illegal water tapping last year, Spain’s Guardia Civil police said on Wednesday following a huge operation.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park”
Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in Andalusia. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

During the year-long operation, “133 people were arrested or investigated for extracting water through more than 1,533 illegal infrastructure devices”, the police’s environmental unit said in a statement.

A similar operation in 2019 had targeted 107 people.

Spain is one of the European countries most at risk from the impact of drought caused by global warming, scientists say.

Water usage issues are often at the heart of heated political debates in Spain where intensive agriculture plays an important role in the economy.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in the southern Andalusia region, one of Europe’s largest wetlands and a Unesco World Heritage bird sanctuary.

They were also operating in “in the basins of Spain’s main rivers”.

In Doñana, police targeted 14 people and 12 companies for the illegal tapping of water for irrigation, a police spokesman said.

Ecologists regularly raise the alarm about the drying up of marshes and lagoons in the area, pointing the finger at nearby plantations, notably growing strawberries, which are irrigated by illegally-dug wells.

“The overexploitation of certain aquifers for many reasons, mainly economic, constitutes a serious threat to our environment,” the Guardia Civil said.

The European Court of Justice rapped Spain over the knuckles in June for its inaction in the face of illegal water extraction in Donana which covers more than 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) and is home to more than 4,000 species, including the critically endangered Iberian lynx.

According to the government’s last official estimate, which dates back to 2006, there were more than half a million illegal wells in use.

But in a 2018 study, Greenpeace estimated there were twice as many, calculating that the quantity of stolen water was equivalent to that used by 118 million people — two-and-a-half times the population of Spain.

Spanish NGO SEO/Birdlife also on Wednesday raised the alarm about the “worrying” state of Spain’s wetlands.