When the EU met last month to hammer out the details of its new energy governance bill, there was a palpable shift in the negotiating dynamics. Spain – which had previously pushed back against the most ambitious renewable energy targets – was advocating alongside Germany, France and Portugal, for a 2030 renewable energy target of 35 percent. In the end, EU Member States agreed on 32%, but Spain’s volte-face did not go unnoticed.
The country’s new government is just over a month old, has a small minority of seats and only two years until the next election. This means there is both limited time and scope for the government to make its mark. Yet, that hasn’t held back Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s ambitions. In addition to the symbolic decision to appoint a female majority cabinet, Sánchez merged the former Ministries of Energy and Environment into the Ministry for Ecological Transition and appointed a well-known environmental activist, Teresa Ribera, as its head.
The creation of a new ministry signalled that Spain would no longer compartmentalise energy and environmental policy. Previously, the Ministries of Energy and the Environment had found themselves at loggerheads over climate change policies. This created a strange dynamic, given that the EU Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, Miguel Arias Cañete, is Spanish. With this ministerial change, Spain is now well positioned to take on a proactive leadership role in EU environmental policy.
While symbols are meaningful, Spain is backing them up with substantive policy changes, too. In addition to its support for a higher renewable energy target, Teresa Ribera announced that the government will scrap the contentious sun-tax. The levy, which was introduced by the Rajoy government in 2015, was imposed on all self-consumption PV systems of more than 10 kW. What’s more, citizens who installed solar panels and produced excess energy were prohibited from selling that electricity. As a result, sun-drenched Spain saw the potential growth of its solar power stymied by the policy. This decision is indeed a welcome change in both the environmental sphere as well as that of the economy.
One of the most contentious environmental policy issues in Spain relates to coal-powered plants. Under the Rajoy government, considerable political capital was spent trying to prop up the country’s coal industry, a policy that diverged from trends seen in other South EU states such as France, Italy and Portugal. Last November, Spain issued a royal decree that enabled the government to veto the closure of a power plant if its operation was deemed necessary for the country’s energy security, economic reasons, or energy-planning. The law was introduced at a time when a large Spanish utility firm, Iberdrola, sought to close its last two coal plants. It was, thus, interpreted by many as an attempt by the government to thwart these particular closures.
While Spain’s energy regulator, Comisión Nacional de Mercados y la Competencia (CNMC), eventually ruled that the retirement of Spain’s coal plants did not constitute an energy security risk, the episode highlighted the previous administration’s less assertive approach towards climate change action.
In contrast, following her appointment as Minister for Ecological Transition, Ribera stated, “I don’t believe coal has much future.” This statement is in line with a document issued by Spain’s Socialist Party (PSOE) last March. Specifically, it proposed closing all of Spain’s coal plants by 2025, something several of Spain’s neighbours have already committed to. While the new government has yet to issue a specific plan relating to these closures, it is nonetheless expected to take a much more aggressive stance on coal than the previous administration.
The crafting of a Climate Change and Energy Transition Bill is a top priority for Spain’s government. In an interview with El País last week, Ribera stated “We will send to Parliament before the end of the year a law whose first draft I would like to announce before August 1.” This bill should elucidate the specific policies and programmes the government will use to achieve its climate change goals. Some of the proposed measures being considered include the prohibition of fracking, the creation of a Green Fund to facilitate investment into sustainable and energy efficient ventures, and the modification of public procurement laws that require contractors to meet certain environmental thresholds.
The new Spanish government may not have much room to manoeuvre, but as its commitment to climate change shows, this fact isn’t stopping it from making the most of its ability to shape both Spanish and EU-level policy.