Beginning with the broader environmental challenges that Spain is facing and urgently need to be addressed by Teresa Ribera, one can highlight energy poverty, drought, political opposition and decentralisation, and the de-ruralization of the Spanish population. While all of them are interconnected, the general link between them is climate change, both in the environmental consequences that it has produced to the political contention of the subject between different Spanish political factions.
Energy Poverty in Spain
The whole of the European Union including Spain has been facing a steep rise in energy prices, especially due to the prolonged uncertainty of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) supply. In this regard, despite Spain’s shifting gradually towards more renewable, alternative resources, the country’s industries and households still heavily rely on gas, obtained through one of its six LNG terminals and imported from countries like Algeria and Russia. Moreover, while having one of the highest levels of natural gas consumption in Europe, Spain produces less than 0.5% of the gas it consumes. Figures by Eurostat illustrate the impact of energy poverty on the citizens of Spain. For instance, 10.9% of Spanish citizens were not able to keep their homes warm in 2020, a figure that has continued to grow throughout the years, from 7.5% in 2019. Teresa Ribera’s stake here is to ensure a stable energy transition to avoid increasing energy poverty.
Another issue that Teresa Ribera must contend with are rising costs caused by pan-European programs, such as Fit for 55. Spain is likely to stay dependent on fossil fuels during its transition, which will be seemingly expensive for the citizens of Spain if they wish to keep up with the industries and services powered by fossil fuels. The Fit for 55 program contains a set of regulations aiming to revise certain policies, such as the EU emissions trading system or aviation emissions, as well as to ensure reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by the year 2030.
The program is a branch of the EU’s green transition, focused on reaching climate action objectives. Ribera wants to ensure a fair transition while not compromising EU industries and economic agents. She wants to set the track for the European Union to become a leading actor in climate action and the fight against climate change.
This program also includes mechanisms such as the carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM), decisions on market stability reserve and professional deals for reducing flight emissions. Fit for 55 was discussed among EU member states to reach a conclusion and to meet the needs and requirements of the member states involved. In this sense, Teresa Ribera has to make sure that her policies are in line with this program in order to be in a favourable position with the European Union and for a fair transition within Spain.
Another policy that will influence Teresa Ribera’s final success is the National Energy Poverty Strategy, which has not yet been fully effective in its implementation. The plan contains four main priorities for action: improving the knowledge of energy poverty as well as the response to it, implementing structural changes to reduce energy poverty, implementing measures to protect all consumers and improving societal awareness of the need for energy efficiency. If Ribera’s Ministry wishes to successfully implement this strategy, it must address the country’s overall unemployment rate, which happens to go hand-in-hand with energy poverty. If there is a delay in implementing these policies, it could cost her a decline to her party’s popular support, in the wake of the recent elections.
Decentralisation and Political Opposition
Another factor that Teresa Ribera and Pedro Sanchez’s government must consider is the issue of decentralised politics. Spain is divided into seventeen autonomous communities, each with its own regional government and varying levels of legislative and administrative powers. These autonomous communities have control over areas such as education, healthcare, culture, and transportation, while certain matters, like defence and foreign affairs, remain under the authority of the central government in Madrid. The decentralisation of politics and administration has provided advantages as well as disadvantages.
While it maintained stability and contributed to greater parity among the communities and the social and economic development of those communities individually, it also brought forward certain challenges such as conflicts between these regional communities and the government, particularly in regards to the justice system and the courts. Moreover, many of the national-level laws, policies and regulations are left open to specification and implementation by the autonomous and regional governments, who can, among others, modify the severity and margin of the measures.
The question of climate action also ties into this issue. Out of the seventeen autonomous communities, only three communities had specific laws that focused on climate change before any national-level jurisdiction was introduced (in this case, Catalonia, Andalucia and the Balearic islands). Adding on, only three autonomous communities have incorporated the term “climate change” into their corresponding ministries. This can show how, unless pressured by the central government, many may not have even developed these kinds of policies in the first place.
Various regional representatives have already opposed Teresa Ribera and her efforts, while also speaking against the centralised structure of ecological transition. For instance, one of the critics, Lorena Ruiz Huerta, a lawyer at Greenpeace, praises the efforts of the regional governments trying to implement climate laws and says that they will be more effective if implemented by the regional bodies in their own communities.
However, as aforementioned, other communities will not implement primary norms if not pushed by the national government itself. Teresa Ribera must apply pressure on these communities and convince them to implement certain climate change laws in order to make the ecological transition more effective. If Teresa Ribera is not able to do this, the opposition can capitalise on this issue while Ribera’s cabinet efforts in implementing her initiatives in the whole country would be halted.
Droughts in Spain
Another issue that ties into Ribera’s outlook are the severe and repetitive droughts affecting the Iberian peninsula. Drought is one of the key factors leading to rising food prices since it has dramatically affected the production of rice, cereals and olives. Due to climate change affecting seasonal rainfall and temperatures, towns are running dry and soil moisture recovery is not sufficient.
Areas such as Asturias and Murcia are being especially impacted by the drought. The issue didn’t take long to be politicised and on discussions between various factions, including the conservatives who are aligned with the farmers against PSOE’s government. Conservative factions, mainly the People’s Party (PP), have capitalised on the campaign of farmers against Spain’s socialist foreign minister Luis Planas by threatening to label him ‘persona non grata’. The PP has also followed up with advertisement campaigns and saying ‘hands of the CAP’.
Also, Teresa Ribera and her party faced backlash in regard to the inefficiency of the solutions offered when the regional government in Andalusia promised to legalise all the illegal farms around Doñana National Park. By this, the centre-left faces the challenge of coming up with solutions that can please the farmers while preventing any environmental damage as well as any undue advantage to the illegal farmers, who may potentially receive access to water.
Furthermore, Teresa also has to deal with pacifying aggravated groups like Rebelión por el Clima who have come to despise policies and regional government solutions, considering them insufficient and profit-centred.
España Vaciada – the emptying of the Spanish rural areas
Another important challenge that the Spanish government is addressing is the demographic ‘de-ruralization’ of Spain, the concept of España Vaciada. There is a migratory trend towards the big cities, emptying rural areas and abandoning activities focused on the primary and secondary sectors.
Teresa Ribera wants to bridge the gap between rural and urban areas while also improving the quality of life in such rural areas. She aims to make sure that people can live, or move back, to the countryside without having to focus their concerns on the quality of services there.
Statistics from the Ministry of Territorial Policy and Public Function and the National Institute of Statistics (INE) highlight the severity of the depopulation issue in Spain. Approximately 90% of the population lives in only 30% of the territory, concentrated in Madrid and coastal areas. This problem is further exacerbated by the high life expectancy of Spaniards. According to population projections, Spain is expected to have 49 million inhabitants by 2033, with one in four being 65 years or older.
Her personal motivation lies in bringing together all aspects of Spanish society in order to adapt to the climate action policies which she is implementing. To elaborate on this further, Teresa shares the concerns and vision of the European Union, which has its own demography commissioner to deal with the trend of increased differences between the two groups that are the haves and the have-nots. In this case, Ribera wants to prevent any populism from rising in the country due to these differences and wants to showcase herself as a leader who can bridge the gap between these groups as well as leave her legacy as one of Spain’s most influential leaders.
However, if she wants to continue her plans for ecological transition, she will have to secure a strong position in the elections as opposed to the conservatives. Teresa Ribera is actively pushing for such climate policies because her policies might give Spain an influential role geopolitically within the European Union. Her ecological transition model may transform Spain into a new leading power in the region with regard to climate action since it is an issue that’s increasing and seriously affecting many countries in Europe, as well as boiling down to other issues such as demographic issues and energy-related issues.
IExRAIA Summer Research Program:
This article is an excerpt from a report on Teresa Ribera produced as part of an RAIA research program on climate leaders. For a full picture of Teresa Ribera’s climate leadership read the full report. This project was fully financed by IE University’s School of Politics, Economics and Global Affairs.
Authors: Ajinkya Deshpande & Valeria Eggers
Editor: Alberto Campos Moya
Project Lead: Joshua Dario Hasenstab
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