Summarizing Sustainability in Spain
It’s hard to recap everything I learned about Spain and its sustainability practices in a single blog post. Condensing an entire semester’s worth of knowledge and research is immensely difficult, and I never know what information is most pertinent to the topic at hand. Given this small disclosure, please note that what I talk about is only a small fraction of Spain’s sustainability efforts and that a four-month period is not nearly enough time to successfully grasp the magnitude of this endeavor.
My time abroad was one of the most formative experiences of my life, and there were so many novel aspects of the country that surprised me. For instance, I couldn’t believe that an entire grocery store trip could cost as little as 20 euros (approximately $20.00). I was shocked to see that they still had buildings standing from the 15th and 16th centuries in the center of the city. More than that though, I was taken aback at the reliability and efficiency of Spain’s public transportation system, and I had every reason to be too. According to various websites (and my own lived experience), Spain has one of the best public transportation systems in the world, connecting its various metropolitan areas.1 It’s clean, quick, and extremely cheap. Meanwhile, in California, much of our public transit is grimy and unreliable. In Los Angeles County, you can hardly expect to go anywhere without the assistance of a car, and, in the Bay Area, our metro system is incredibly unsanitary. (In fact, it got so bad once that we actually had an outbreak of bed bugs in the cars a few years back.2) Getting around in Spain felt like ‘night and day’ in comparison to what I was used to back in the States. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t worried about contracting some random disease while on my way home from school.
Given this excellent public transportation system, I was even more surprised by my previous research, which found that Spain struggled greatly with air pollution. At the beginning of the semester, I had written about how the country’s main sustainability concern revolved around its traffic and the number of cars on the roads (see my first blog post for more details). Yet this seemed counterintuitive; if Spain was renowned for its public transportation, why was it so afflicted by vehicular-induced air pollution? The reality, I began to see, was more complicated than I had initially assumed and had more to do with issues like wealth and justice than just climate change.
Spain, like many other wealthy countries, faces various obstacles when it comes to reducing its carbon footprint.3 Though, ideally, the country would love to eliminate air pollution entirely, it needs to consider the needs of its population, which relies heavily on greenhouse gases, much like the rest of the world. Spanish citizens want to have cars, travel, run their air conditioners, have a prospering economy, and more, all of which require energy. If Spain were to take initiatives to become more carbon-friendly and they backfired, citizens would be upset, politicians would be stressed, and the country would struggle to compete with some of the larger players within the global economy. While seemingly simple, the problem is actually much more complicated and layered than one might expect.
As I spent more time in Spain, exploring the city of Madrid and its history, I also began to realize that, like so many other places in the world, air pollution was not one of the general public’s top concerns on a day-to-day basis. Yes, people were aware of climate change and the threat of air pollution; however, because it wasn’t always directly affecting them, it was not usually at the forefront of their minds. Instead, people were much more preoccupied with other conflicts. Throughout my time there, I noticed that a lot of political unrest stemmed from the legacy of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and his reign. (For those of you who don’t know, Francisco Franco was a Spaniard who rose to power during the Spanish Civil War after rebelling against the country’s democratic government. He ruled the country for decades all the way up until his death in 1975. Under his dictatorship, thousands of Spaniards died and even more disappeared.4) Since the atrocities of Franco’s regime still have rippling effects on modern Spanish society, many citizens seem to be more focused on bringing his followers to justice than on air pollution, which is far less tangible.
This is not to say that Spaniards are not concerned about the environment or that Spain hasn’t made some monumental strides towards reducing carbon emissions. Over the past few years, the country has worked to move away from fossil fuels and turn instead to renewable energy. In 2022, 40% of their energy came from renewable sources, primarily wind!6 At times, the country also rations its energy, which I experienced first-hand. While in Spain, there were a few evenings when I had to unplug my electronics and turn off the lights for a period of time because the city of Madrid was regulating energy consumption. It should also be noted that Spain’s carbon emissions were significantly reduced following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with numbers dropping by approximately 53 million metric tons of carbon.7
Ultimately, the most notable lesson that I learned from studying Spain’s ongoing sustainability efforts is that, for better or for worse, every climate-based issue is more complicated than it seems. A problem that might present itself as straightforward, like elevated carbon emissions, actually becomes much more complex once you factor in all of the people whose lives are directly affected by any alterations made to the status quo. Spain currently averages a population of 47 million people, and that entire population—in some form or another—benefits from energy consumption. In other words, any resolution to the air pollution issue will affect each of those 47 million people, which must be taken into consideration.8 On the other hand, there is a lot to be learned from Spain. Their public transport system is admirable, and if more countries were willing to invest in similar projects, we could reduce our planet’s overall pollution exponentially. And, although they might not always be making the national news, there are various environmental organizations in Spain working every day to help the country become more eco-friendly.9
I know that when it comes to the topic of global warming, many people are pessimistic. They think we are fighting an uphill battle, one that we will inevitably lose. However, if anything, going abroad has only made me more optimistic about the future. I got to see how countries around the globe are tackling this universal problem, and, though imperfect, coming up with solutions to reduce their emissions while also keeping their economies strong. I was shown time and time again how resilient both humans and the environment actually are and how—in spite of the odds—they persist. Although we don’t always hear about them, there are a myriad of individuals out there fighting for a cleaner and more sustainable lifestyle. It’s just up to us whether or not we want to join them. After all, if we want to fix the problem, everyone has to echar una mano (lend a hand)!
3 Often times, when people talk about countries with many resources (Spain, the United States, Britain, Canada, etc.), they use terms like “developed” or “first-world”. As you can see, I tried to refrain from using those words—sticking to labels like “wealthy” instead—because I think they can be seen as offensive and as perpetuating unfair stereotypes that date back to the times of colonization. You can read more about this issue here: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2021/01/08/954820328/memo-to-people-of-earth-third-world-is-an-offen sive-term