On the 20th of May, the Spanish law on climate change and energy transition finally entered into force. Finally? Indeed, the law has taken more than a decade to pass since Congress called for it. In the meantime, climate change has continued to affect Spain through prolonged droughts and more extreme weather events. However, the lengthy procedure is not the only point the law gets criticized for. Not only is it not ambitious enough, with many Spanish  environmental NGOs (ecologistas en acción, Rebelión por el Clima, and Greenpeace) highlighting this point, but the law also leaves aside the agricultural, aviation and industrial sectors. 

At WE&B we wanted to have a closer look and make up our own opinion and examine the central element: The targeted greenhouse gas reductions. 

These are the core elements of the law (Without going into detail – if you are interested in the full text, you can find it here).

The central element is the envisioned reduction of greenhouse gas emissions: Until 2030, Spain set the target to reduce its emissions by 23 % (compared to the 1990 level). Until 2050, the country should go climate neutral, meaning zero net emissions. Besides, the law also establishes targets for renewable energy production and consumption, for an electric car fleet, and for low emission zones in larger cities.

To get an idea whether Spain’s targets are ambitious enough, we can put them into the context of the Paris Agreement and compare them with the EU goals.

The EU has, the same as Spain, declared its ambition of zero net emissions by 2050. However, the EU’s 2030 target is to cut emissions by 55 % to Spain’s 23 %. How realistic is it to reach climate neutrality by 2050 if in 2030 we only cut the emissions in Spain to 23 % compared to 1990 levels?

And if the single member states do not implement the EU goal into national objectives, it seems unlikely that the EU can fulfil their promise. With Spain being the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, the country’s emissions do play a decisive role in the EU’s emission balance.

In terms of the Paris Agreement, the most central goal is to limit global warming to 2°C, preferably well below 1.5 °C. Recently, we have witnessed some hopeful development, for example with the EU’s declared increase of emission reduction until 2030 (from 40 % to 55 %) or the USA entering back into the Paris Agreement. And even with these milestones, the “emission gap” that still needs to be reduced by 2030 to reach a global emission level that is in line with the 1.5 °C goal is considerably large. Take a look at the climate trackers graph on the 2030 emissions gap. 

Source: https://climateactiontracker.org/global/cat-emissions-gaps/

The UNEP`s annual Emission Gap Report from 2019 advises that emissions have to be cut by 7.9 % annually in the 2020-2030 decade to be on track for the 1.5 °C goal. Furthermore, a late start in achieving these ambitious reductions also means that future measures must be even more drastic. As the Emission Gap Report further points out, had we started reductions ten years ago, the advised pathway would have only been an annual 3.3 % reduction. 


So even if Spain does become climate neutral in 2050, it is not only about this single date. It is especially vital to take action as fast as possible and to not only start taking drastic reduction measures at some point in the future. Otherwise, we will have consumed all of the remaining carbon budget that is left until we are surpassing a 1.5 °C warming soon. 

The fact that it is important to not only talk about years as milestones but also about precise carbon budgets, was recently confirmed in the example provided by Germany’s federal constitutional court. The first celebrated new climate law from 2019 was sued by several parties, among them Fridays for Future. The court declared the climate law to be partly unconstitutional. The reasoning from the judges was that the German law only set targets until 2030, without specifying how sufficient reductions would be achieved to not surpass the 1.5 °C threshold afterwards; thereby leaving measures to be taken mostly in the years after 2030. But until then, Germany’s carbon budget would be almost consumed, which would make it nearly impossible to still comply with the Paris Agreement. Moreover, this would be socially unfair for future generations. 


The Spanish case seems to have a similar scenario: Leaving most of the “reduction effort” to reach climate neutrality by 2050 for the years after 2030, is first of all, in our opinion, not the best strategy in terms of climate change mitigation but furthermore it lays the responsibility on future generations that have to bear the extra burden from 2030 onwards.


Considering the shrinking time window and carbon budget we have left, this leaves us somewhat pessimistic. Of course, the transition to a climate neutral scenario is incredibly complex and it might be uncomfortable to announce potentially unpopular measures to the public – but postponing it does not solve the issue. Early in 2020, Spain has officially declared the state of climate emergency. But the climate law does not seem to reflect a sense of urgency to act now  

However, we see some hope for the next years. The Spanish climate law foresees a first revision of the set objectives in 2023 and every five years from then onwards. For these revisions to tighten the current level of ambitions, strong signals are needed that the public is well aware of the climate crisis and in favour of determined, fast countermeasures. In that sense, the planned Spanish citizen climate change assembly could be a potential leverage point. Spain has announced to hold five virtual meetings of a citizen climate change assembly in autumn 2021 with 100 citizens randomly chosen from the population. The assembly is expected to develop recommendations of actions to be taken to protect Spain against climate change and release their conclusions by spring 2022. Even though we don’t know yet how Spain’s citizen assembly will act, examples from the UK and France show, that the citizen assemblies tend to formulate significantly more ambitious measures than policy makers have done thus far. Hopefully, Spain can follow a similar path and potentially, the revision of the climate law will see the assembly’s final conclusions as a proof of the citizens’ will for fast climate change mitigation action.

Moreover, the outcomes of international climate negotiations might give Spain a reason to revise its 2030 target. The COP 26 UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Glasgow this November is one of the most important and trendsetting events in that regard internationally. What we can all do to enforce a strong outcome of this year’s conference, is to signal that the public has an interest in the event to be successful. There are petitions running to call to the COP to take urgent actions. If you want to sign, you can do that on the UNHCR website.

A Spanish climate law is at least in place, despite its delay and not being sufficiently ambitious. We hope that it is one of many steps the Spanish government will take in the very near future to stick to the target of the Paris Agreement, and to keep Spain’s contribution to global warming below 1.5°C.

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