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Sustainability is a Reality in Spain

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

✦ It's one thing to champion sustainability in speech. It's quite another thing to put it into practice and make it a reality. And Spain is a country that is setting an example in how to make sustainability achievable and manageable.

Experiencing sustainability in Spain

Spain and Sustainability? Hmm... most associate Spain with tourism, sunny beaches, partying and generally a feeling of happiness and fun pervading the country. There is a serious side to the country, where they are quietly implementing measures to make Sustainability a key characteristic of the country.

It helped that on my Spanish tour I met up with our Brilliant Team's Content Writer, Yanntyng, who has been calling Spain home for the past 16 years. Clearly that would be enough time to disqualify her as a tourist. She shared what her experience has been like with regards to Spain and its sustainability style.

Climate change is all too real in Spain. There is a water shortage and each summer is getting hotter than the last. If you live in the south of Spain, the heat can be a worrying health hazard for the more vulnerable in the population. And while it may be relaxing to take a bath, the Spanish understand the problem with water scarcity and taking a shower is a much more efficient option for many. Of course, it is far more fun and relaxing to go to a natural and huge bath that is the sea in summer!

An example of Barcelona's eco-friendly building - sustainable buildings in Spain as featured on Brilliant-Online
An example of Barcelona's eco-friendly buildings


Spain may not have their own Greta Thunberg pushing for a change, but as a people, the Spanish are very environmentally-conscious. For Yanntyng, separating rubbish was a new habit she learnt to adopt. In most households she has lived in, families would have a bin for plastic, glass, cardboard/paper, and one bin for what she calls 'whatever-is-left'. Nowadays families would also have another bin for organic waste. It is typical to see people taking each individual bag of rubbish down to the huge recycling bins that are conveniently located in many streets or to each building's individual bins. So yes, you do need to have enough space in your kitchen to have so many different bins, and it takes effort to do that, but once it becomes a habit you do not really think about it. It becomes second nature.

Separating rubbish for recycling

Some people may be skeptical about what happens to the rubbish when the trucks trundle by to pick them up. There are urban myths about how everything gets thrown into the same landfill anyway, and the more cynical among the population do not believe it is worth the effort separating rubbish. Yanntyng has been teaching English in Spain throughout her time there, and having met people from different industries, sectors and companies, it has given her a chance to get to know the country even better. Some of her students are from Ecovidrio, which is the non-profit entity responsible for managing the recycling of all glass packaging waste in Spain. This gave her an opportunity to learn about how the glass recycling system works, and it is a huge motivator to continue her efforts to separate the rubbish at home! Perhaps the key is to listen to people in various sectors involved in sustainability to better understand the work they do, and how every individual effort can make a difference. It certainly does colour how Yanntyng views glass nowadays, and she tries to opt for a glass option when shopping for olive oil or other foodstuff.

Spain also has what is known as 'puntos limpios', some of which are really just a small truck or van that is parked by the street and where you can bring certain products that cannot go into the normal waste bins. These include batteries, contaminants, paint, electrical goods such as cables, plugs, devices and even used cooking oil. Citizens can check online where their nearest punto limpio is and the schedule and bring their rubbish there to be safely disposed of.

ESG in Spain

Madrid is infamous for its traffic jams, and as a big city, it is a challenge finding ways to reduce pollution. Since January 2019, only zero-emission vehicles (electrical and ECO vehicles e.g. hybrids and PLG) are allowed in the centre of Madrid. Having said that, Madrid is a very walkable city and Yanntyng pretty much relies on her own two legs to get her to most places. One of the benefits of remote working for her is she no longer has to tunnel underground or zip around on buses rushing through the day. Home is certainly a very comfortable and environmentally-friendly place to be in in that sense!

Apart from concerns with the environment, Spain is also going strong in other areas of sustainability and ESG. The country has introduced gender equality plans involving equal pay between men and women and gender pay transparency in 2021. Companies with 100 or more employees are required to negotiate an equality plan by 7 March 2021, while companies with 50 or more employees must negotiate an equality plan by 7 Mar 2022. Those that already have an equality plan must ensure its compliance with the new decree by 14 January 2022.

Reusable shopping bag - Sustainable living as featured in Brilliant-Online
Sustainable living

Big companies across Spain are all plugged in to the whole ESG landscape now, and while small businesses and corner shops may not be able to do the same, they are still doing their best to make a difference. And this may be something as small and simple as charging for plastic bags and customers are also very much in the habit of doing their groceries with their own trolleys or shopping bags from home.

There is a lot of support and solidarity in Spain when it comes to caring for the environment and Yanntyng believes it is something that can be nurtured and inspired. The people you surround yourself with is also important - if they align with healthy values, it is easy to get on track and adopt healthy habits. She lives with a Spanish lady, Malala who designs and makes her own jewellery, and Malala's black cat. Living sustainably is actually fun and quite an adventure because they share ideas of what they can do to make that tiny change in the future of the planet.

Some of their sustainability experiments / adventures include:

  • Recycling used ground coffee powder or egg shells as fertilizer for plants.

  • Using a brand of natural soap (really cheap!) from a supermarket to wash the dishes, do the laundry, clean the house and even remove pests on plants so they no longer need to buy so many plastic bottles of chemicals for every purpose.

  • Sharing and propagating plants with friends and family so they can have a bit of green on their balconies for the bees to come.

  • Malala is always discovering clothes she has but never worn much and she hands them down to Yanntyng so there hasn't been a need to shop for clothes in ages!

  • Using bicarbonate of soda and vinegar to unblock clogged drains and clean just about everything in the house instead of chemical cleaners (and it really does work like magic!).

  • Using the app Too Good to Go that aims to prevent food waste. They got a load of delicious bread and pastries from Pain Quotidien recently, and it gave them bread to last for a month!

  • Using natural coconut oil for cosmetic purposes, and this ranges from brushing your teeth with it to keeping your hair healthy.

  • Malala recently discovered washable makeup remover pads and has been happily using that every day.

  • Adopting is done with love in this household, whether it is adopting cats or furniture! They've been gifted second-hand sofas and tables and these pieces have always been received with gratitude and joy.

On a sidenote, once you have the experience of living on your own or having to pay for your own place, the regular bills and expenses really do make a big dent in your finances. It makes you automatically think twice about leaving all the lights on at home (save on electricity and bills), or taking a shower instead of a water-wasting bath (save on water and bills again!). Financial limitations can have their upside too. It makes people adopt more sustainable habits. Another example is with gas prices soaring now, many in Spain have adopted the safer way of driving i.e. not speeding! People have been adapting their commuting habits, opting to avoid peak hour and drive more slowly (because it burns up less gas) and with many companies allowing hybrid work, traffic jams are no longer a daily grind.

Beyond Good Food

Everyone has heard of the Mediterranean diet, and Spanish cuisine is famous around the world and you'd have tried somewhere somehow nice hot churros dipped in thick chocolate, or been served a generous helping of paella with all its hidden treasures in the saffron-coloured rice.

Spain goes beyond serving good food (and enjoying them of course). Spain is actually very self-sufficient. In fact, I was really impressed at how self-sufficient the country really is. Few countries can boast of that, and in our increasingly interdependent world, it is part of every country's identity to import and export food. We have something other people need, and we are lacking in what other countries have a surplus of. While weather conditions are favourable, economic and political situations are stable, there can be a feeling of community as we 'share' in different food across countries.

But all you need is one small imbalance, some random law that suddenly stops certain foods from going across to another country, a war in another part of the world or just the weather doing its thing because of climate change, and you may find your country in a quandary because there is a scarcity of certain food products.

It makes our relationships among countries all over the world a very delicate, tenuous and fragile one. It goes beyond wanting to be good neighbours. If there is scarcity, there will be friction in the relationships among countries.

Spain is incredibly fortunate in how it is so self-sufficient in the majority of the food they eat. One could say it is a land of plenty with its rich agricultural heritage.

In fact, Spain is home to several Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS), as declared by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

GIAHS are "outstanding landscapes of aesthetic beauty that combine agricultural diversity, resilient ecosystems and a valuable cultural heritage… They are a living, evolving ecosystem of human communities in an intricate relationship with their territory, cultural or agricultural landscape, or wider social environment.” (Source: Food and Wines from Spain)

Centennial Olive Trees from Mediterranean Mallorca
Centennial Olive Trees from Mediterranean Mallorca

Climate change and migration are just some of the issues that can lead to the disappearance of these systems. This means a loss of traditional farming techniques and native species. These systems have paved the way for the agricultural innovation technology we have today and these systems need protecting.

Spain has four GIAHS:

These four gems are precious to Spain. The country has the responsibility to preserve and maintain these ancient agricultural systems. It will be a reflection of the country's history, development, resourcefulness and innovation.

The Salt of the Earth

Located in the town of Salinas de Añana, in the Basque Country’s Álava province, the Valle Salado has a unique salt bubble where you can find salt water springs. Salt has been produced in this area for more than 6,500 years. The Middle Ages saw salt being traded and around the 1960s was when an exodus from the valley caused a decline in the production. From having originally over 5000 terraces used to harvest salt, only 500 were functional by 1995.

Now, Spain is working to protect this landscape and bring back the ancient salt extraction techniques. It is also a way to keep the economy of the community going. Tourism is helping to give the area a boost, and it is considered to be on its way to an economically sustainable recovery. As the region continues to work on being financially self-sufficient, employment is starting to grow.

A Sweet and Wrinkly Grape

Many of us grew up snacking on Sun-Maid raisins. But I certainly have never stopped to think how raisins are produced. They're kind of like grapes that just got all wrinkly.

Málaga is a great favourite with many Spaniards and tourists. And raisins. It has the perfect climate and soil for Muscat grapes. These are turned into both raisins and muscatel wine. In the area of La Axarquía, there is a precious raisin production technique that is centuries-old. In fact, there is even a Ruta de la Pasa (Raisin Route) that runs for approximately 62 km and it takes you through the Totalán, Comares, El Borge, Moclinejo, Almáchar and Cútar municipalities. Here, you'll be treated to more than 3000 hectares of planted vineyards and paseros (beds where handpicked grapes are laid out for a bit of sunbathing).

What is impressive is Spain has been able to preserve cultivation techniques from Phonecian times. Now there is a revival of interest in this agricultural system and local farmers are working hard to maintain these traditions. In fact, because of the geographical structure of the area, very few crops take to the land, and grapes have been one of the rare plants to delight in growing here. The humble raisin has become an important part of the local economy, not only preserving it financially but also in terms of its terrain in preventing erosion and desertification.

Tree of Life

The olive tree is also known as the Tree of Life. Given its range of health benefits, it is no wonder it has rightly earned this beautiful title. It is rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and good for the heart and bones.

Olives on a plate

There are ancient olive trees in Sénia, Tarragona which are 5000 years old. Just thinking about that is enough to make one awestruck. These trees need to be constantly protected. Both the public and private sectors in Spain are working together to develop the olive oil tourism industry there as a way to preserve the ancient trees. The local community and farmers are involved and the country has done much work to increase awareness in the need to boost local businesses and gastronomy.

Water, water everywhere...

... and there is plenty to drink here. L’Horta in Valencia is showing the world how sustainable irrigation is done. The irrigation system there extends over 28 sq km across more than 12 municipalities. There are 6000 agricultural holdings in the area which are fed by the Turia River using a gravity-based system. Designed in the 18th century, the country has managed to preserve the original ditches and hydraulic spaces. And they continue to function today. The land is used to grow fruits and vegetables such as pumpkins, onions and lettuce.

The Urgency of Sustainability

Spain is the first country in the European Union to adapt national plans to bring an end to climate change, according to the report entitled Planning for Net Zero Emissions 2019 by the European Climate Foundation.

If we were to look at what Spain has been doing so far and its upcoming plans, one would have to say they are certainly doing their part, and it is a clear sign of commitment to making a difference:

  • In 2018 Spain announced an environmental policy to end its dependence on fossil fuels and draw 75% of its electricity from renewables by 2030, rising to 100% by 2050.

  • Spain aims to completely decarbonize its econom and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 90% against 1990 levels.

  • Spain has stopped issuing new licences for oil and gas exploration and closed most of its coalmines.

  • The country is running down its nuclear energy program and is instead retraining workers in clean energy jobs and environmental restoration.

  • Spain is beefing up its renewable energy program focusing on solar and wind energies. The government has committed to installing at least 3,000 megawatts of wind and solar power capacity every year over the next ten years.

You are my sunshine

Considering the amount of sun the country gets, it would make sense to take advantage of the Spanish sun to give it a big boost in renewable energy. If you ever pass by Totana in the south of Spain, put on your Raybans because you may just be blinded by the fields of solar panels reflecting off the robust Spanish sun.

Energy farms in Spain - Solar panels and wind turbines

Spain has a total of 1,265 wind farms, had an installed wind power capacity of 28.1 gigawatts in 2021, up from 23.4 gigawatts in 2018, according to industry group AEE. (April 2022)

This is a massive solar energy system. The area gets nearly 2,800 hours a year. The Totana Solar Plan, operated by Enel Green Power (EGP), contributes 85 megawatts of electricity to Spain's national power network. This is literally the size of Spain's commitment to fighting climate change. They are proactively finding ways to source and harness renewable energy and make it accessible and affordable. Furthermore, the Totana Solar Plant is generating enough clean energy to save the emission of around 104,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.

The Totana plant is not just about soaking up solar energy. The construction of the plant was based on EGP’s Sustainable Construction Model that uses the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Energy Goals as a reference, and their innovative best practices and procedures are actually now a blueprint for other building projects in Spain. Even the plant itself is a model of sustainability - this ranges from recycling waste, composting organic material, and the solar array they used has now been donated to a local day centre. During the construction of the plant, preference was given to local workers and contractors as a way to involve and support the local community. Those who were unemployed were given training programmes in renewable energy. Schools also received environmental awareness programmes. The way sustainability is done in Spain is highly reflective of their solidarity. Everyone is involved. This philosophy of Creating Shared Value is a way to build lasting relationships with local communities.

The answer is blowing in the wind...

Wind turbines in a field

When the sun isn't shining, Spain relies on another source of renewable energy - the wind. In fact, Spain has more wind and sun than any other European country. When you travel through Spain, you may see gigantic wind turbines standing over fields, and it does make one wonder, if Don Quijote were to come to life and see such a humongous monster of a windmill, would he still bravely fight it? These astounding structures may not have the quaint charm of an old-fashioned wooden windmill, but they have a far more important task at hand.

With 27,446 MW of accumulated capacity, wind energy is the second source of electrical generation in Spain in 2020. Spain is the fifth country in the world in terms of installed wind power after China, the US, Germany and India. There are 1265 wind farms peppered across Spain in more than 1,000 municipalities.

Spain is seeing wind power continue to grow and according to the National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC), released last year, the installed capacity of wind turbines will almost double between now and 2030.

For Spain, 2021 was the most expensive year for energy in history, and the citizens are all feeling the burn. If Spain can get more wind turbines and solar panels to beef up the grid, the less consumers and companies will have to pay to buy their power from the regulated market (PVPC).

So yes, climate change and environmental problems are scary, depressing and heavy, AND it is also possible to make a change from where we all are. We will never have a perfect world and get it all perfectly right. As they say, if nothing changes, nothing changes! Spain is doing its bit as a country on this planet, and every single individual, every family is a microcosm that can still do their best to bring a bit of balm and relief to the environment. Perhaps that will be enough to simply make a start. Right now.



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