Environmental Protection and Sustainability in Spain

One thing that I’ve learned over the course of several international politics classes and my Model UN experience in the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) is that Europe on a whole is much more proactive than the US when it comes to environmental protection. Spain’s Foreign Ministry is serious about mobilizing global efforts to combat climate change and develop sustainable energy sources. Since Spain sits on the Iberian Peninsula, the threat of rising sea levels in the future will affect the country severely. Spain ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which sets targets for CO2 emissions, in 2002 and calls on members of the international community to tackle climate change and other environmental challenges through concentrated and cooperative efforts (United Nations Framework on Climate Change).

However, the Western world, both the US and Europe, consumes energy and resources at alarming rates. Both regions, and the rest of the world, have some serious work to do to sustain the environment and natural resources for future generations. Take a look at Spain’s environmental health:

  • “Spain has one of the largest water footprints in the world, amounting to about 2000 m³/capita/year,” much of which is used for agriculture (Aldaya 2008). A “water footprint” is the amount of water used to produce a community’s goods and services.
  • Spain generates the most wind power of any European country (US Energy Information Administration, as of 2012).
  • In 2012, Spain’s energy sources broke down into 30% renewable energy,  21% nuclear power, and 49% coal (US Energy Information Administration).
  • In 2013, Spain consumed 1,205.01 thousand barrels of petroleum per day, the 18th highest in the world (US Energy Information Administration).
  • In 2013, Spain emitted 44 million metric tons of CO2, the 19th highest in the world (US Energy Information Administration).

How is Sevilla doing with environmental sustainability efforts in daily life?  As with many things, they are taking some good steps in some areas and could use improvement in others.

The Good Still to Improve
Home water use-Spaniards keep showers short, 5-10 minutes. This is a struggle when you have long hair. They’re also sparing with laundry. In the dorms at TCU, it seems like the washing machines are constantly running, and I did 1-2 large loads of laundry a week for just myself.  Here, my host mom does small loads (the washing machine is smaller than in the US) for both me and my roommate once a week. These norms are not only for caring for the environment but also because of high water costs. Drinking water-Ask for agua del grifo, tap water, here, and the waiter will look at you like you have two heads. In my host home we drink tap water, but in restaurants you will almost always be served bottled mineral water (sometimes you can ask for a vasito de agua and get tap water if you’ve already ordered another drink). This extra bottling process not only wastes resources on additional processing when the water here is perfectly safe, it also creates a lot of plastic/glass waste.
Street cleanup-Sevilla has large trucks that clean the streets early in the morning and late at night when there are fewer people out. The drawback, however, is the amount of fuel burned to run the trucks.  In parks and around the river public workers clean up trash as well, which also provides some jobs. What I don’t see is ordinary citizens picking up trash they find on the ground. Littering-Despite the cleanup trucks and crew, the streets are littered with cigarettes. I’ve seen very few ashtray/special trashcans for cigarettes, so people just toss them on the ground.  And when I run in the mornings, I see the riverbank flooded with broken and empty bottles of Cruzcampo beer, despite the presence of trashcans (recycle bins would be better of course). It’s not even good beer, people, not worth it.
Home electricity-My host mom reminds us during the day to use la luz natural instead of the room lamp, and the lights in the main apartment building are off unless you actually need them and flip the switch. At hotels, you have to put your room key in a slot to turn on the lights, so when you leave you can’t accidently leave lights on. Laundry is hung to dry, and refrigerators aren’t set very cool (which is kind of gross for dairy/meat products I think). And the biggest culture shock, central heating and AC do not exist here (they use radiators/space heaters and fans, but let me tell you, you definitely feel the weather inside the house. Like water, electricity is pricey in Spain, so part of the motivation is economic. Television-Despite saving electricity elsewhere, the TV in my host home is always on. Other than the fact that this drives me crazy, as my room shares a wall with the living room TV, it seems contradictory to be so conscientious of electricity use yet leave the TV on whether or not someone is actually in the room watching it (Often someone is watching it.  Read books, people! Much more environmentally friendly, and more fun/educational besides! End rant). This is changing in some homes, however. My conversation professor said when she was little the TV was basically never turned off, but with her own kids she limits the screen time, which saves electricity and her children’s minds.
Transportation-One of the things I love about Europe is the excellent public transportation.  Sevilla built a metro in 2007 and also has an extensive bus system and a bike rental system called Sevici that goes all over the city. And unless the journey is very far, many people bike, roller blade, or walk. Young kids, older folks, and everyone in-between. My host family doesn’t own a car, pretty amazing when you contemplate all the multi-car families in the US. Those that do own cars here tend to have smaller, more fuel-efficient ones or motorcycles. I have seen one mini-van in the last 2 months here. Smoking-Yes, the air here doesn’t have as much car exhaust, but one thing it does have is a lot of cigarette smoke. Our program coordinator, Mary Alice, told us that smoking has decreased in the last 10 years. But it’s still common to find clumps of smokers outside a building, and if enough people are smoking that does contribute harmful gases to the air. And it makes breathing when you’re running all the more difficult. Hopefully Spain’s efforts to campaign against smoking will continue for the health of both the environment and the population.
Recycling-There are large recycling bins in residential areas, and my host mom keeps a bag for recyclables in her kitchen. So I hope most of these plastic/glass water bottles are actually making it into the recycle bins. The recycling program here seems comparable to the US. However, even processing recycling requires energy, so it would be even better still to minimize creating non-reusable products. It’s easy to spot the Americans in Sevilla, because as one of the Spanish interns at UPO’s international center pointed out, we constantly carry those water bottles with us. Paper waste-At TCU, I turn in most of my papers via a virtual classroom site, and my professors generally use this site to share articles to read for class, for ease and to save paper. We use Blackboard at UPO, but for the most part we print everything, including large packets of readings. This is sort of a catch-22.  I think the active process of writing and highlighting hard-copy articles helps me retain information, but turning in assignments when double-sided printing at the school copistería (copy shop) is not an option strikes me as a waste of paper that could quickly add up with 10,000 students.



Spain has been working towards greater environmental sustainability, but national and international efforts are incomplete.  The US and Spain could both learn from each other and from others about ways to improve the protection and sustainability of our earth.  Because in the words of the King of Spain:

“The impact of seeing the Earth from outer space for the first time made us truly understand that, above and beyond our borders and despite our differences, we share the same home, and the same challenges. Today, the shared challenge of climate has become even more urgent than ever. It threatens to upset the basic balance that makes our civilization, and life itself, possible; this compels us to act decisively.”–King Felipe VI of Spain, UN Climate Summit, September 23, 2014




Aldaya, M.M., Garrido, A., Llamas, M.R., Varela-Ortega, C., Novo, P. and Rodríguez Casado, R. (2008).  The water footprint of Spain.  Journal on Sustainable Water Management, 2008-3: 15-20.

United Nations Framework on Climate Change.  (2014).  Kyoto Protocol.  <http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/items/2830.php&gt;

U.S. Energy Information Administration.  (2014).  Spain.  Independent Statistics and Analysis.  <eia.gov>



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