Avoiding extreme climate change demands clean energy, but Catalonia has limited powers to act

The Catalan Government was one of 14 regional executives to sign the 'Under 2 Memorandum of Understanding' in May 2015 as part of a pact to reduce CO2 emissions by 80-95% by 2050 among the signing territories. This goal is an effort to mitigate the worst effects of climate change coming from greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, the Catalan Government has been working toward improving energy efficiency and developing a greater supply of renewable energy through various initiatives and action plans. However, the biggest changes necessary for Catalonia to adopt the renewable, low-emissions energy model it desires cannot be implemented by the Catalan Government, but would have to come from the Spanish Government instead. Overall, the biggest challenge facing the adoption of renewable energy is being able to produce it at prices competitive with conventional sources of power.

Factory chimneys in Tarragona, southern Catalonia (by N. Torres)
Factory chimneys in Tarragona, southern Catalonia (by N. Torres) / Kyle Brown

Kyle Brown

August 4, 2015 06:31 PM

Barcelona (CNA).– The Catalan Government was one of 14 regional executives to sign the 'Under 2 Memorandum of Understanding' in May 2015 as part of a pact to reduce CO2 emissions by 80-95% by 2050 among the signing territories. This goal is an effort to mitigate the worst effects of climate change coming from greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, the Catalan Government has been working toward improving energy efficiency and developing a greater supply of renewable energy through various initiatives and action plans. However, the biggest changes necessary for Catalonia to adopt the renewable, low-emissions energy model it desires cannot be implemented by the Catalan Government, but would have to come from the Spanish Government instead. Overall, the biggest challenge facing the adoption of renewable energy is being able to produce it at prices competitive with conventional sources of power.

In its 2014 Climate Change Synthesis Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicated that an increase in average global temperature of 2°C from pre-industrial levels from greenhouse gas emissions would have catastrophic effects on multiple systems. Some of these effects were diminished food security, an increase in severe weather events and acidification of the oceans, among others.

Climate change can still be mitigated but strong efforts are required in the coming decades

The good news, however, is that the IPCC report stated that "there are multiple mitigation pathways that are likely to limit warming to below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels." Even though this goal requires a substantial reduction in emissions in the next few decades and near-zero emissions by the end of the 21st century, leaders around the world have started stepping up to the challenge.

In May, Catalonia signed the 'Under 2 Memorandum of Understanding' (Under 2 MOU) with 13 other regional governments to cut CO2 emissions by 2 tons per capita or 80-95% of 1990 levels by 2050. Outside Catalonia, leaders from these non-independent nations, states and regions came from Brazil, Germany, Mexico, Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Nigeria to sign the agreement, namely the governments of Wales, California, Vermont, Ontario, British Columbia, Jalisco and Baden-Württemberg, among others. "This international agreement is an example of how pioneering governments in the fight against climate change, who truly believe that global warming must be one of the main concerns of the international community, are able to join efforts, take the lead and foster an ambitious agreement," said Santi Vila, Catalonia Minister for Territory and Sustainability, of the agreement.

Climate change could get much worse if nothing is done

In the period from 1880 to 2012, global temperatures – taking both the oceans and land surface into account – rose by 0.85°C, according to the report by the IPCC. Without further efforts to reduce emissions, global temperatures would reach levels 3.7°C to 4.8°C by the end of the century, but those numbers range from 2.5°C to 7.8°C when climate uncertainty is taken into account.

Catalonia has already cleared the 1°C mark, said Javier Martín-Vide, Director of the University of Barcelona Climatology Group. He said Fabra Observatory near the city limits of Barcelona has recorded a 1.7°C increase in temperature from 1914 to 2013, although approximately 0.5°C of that could be the urban contribution of the city and should not be excluded from the final temperature mark.

In any case, the leading contributor to global climate change is greenhouse gases like CO2 trapping heat in the earth's atmosphere. Martín-Vide said some experts consider the indicator for irreversible climate change to be a global atmospheric CO2 concentration of 350 ppm, which has already been exceeded. According to the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) CO2 records at Mauna Loa, Hawaii – the longest continuous such atmospheric recording – the 350 ppm mark was first surpassed in May 1986. In NOAA's most recent available global data, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in May 2015 was 400.99 ppm.

More than half of the world's greenhouse gases come from CO2 emissions produced by burning fossil fuels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. As the burning of fossil fuels is done exclusively by humans, it is a factor that is entirely within the hands of the world population. The challenge in mitigating these emissions, however, is finding a suitable energy replacement that produces little or no CO2 and can be sold at affordable market prices.

Catalonia's efforts begin with improving energy efficiency

Pere Palacín, the Catalan Government's General Director of the Department of Energy, Mines and Industrial Safety, said Catalonia imports approximately 75% of its total energy supply from outside sources because the territory, like the rest of Spain, is poor in fossil fuel sources. He said the primary strategy Catalonia is taking to avoid using fossil fuels is to cut down on energy use and increasing efficiency – using the fewest materials to generate the greatest results.

Ramon Garriga, Director of the Catalan Energy Research Institute (IREC), a private foundation dedicated to advancing energy research, said the first step toward reducing dependence on fossil fuels and transitioning toward renewable sources is to improve efficiency in usage. "The best energy is the energy that is not used," he said.

"We are rolling out different strategies to get the most quality of life and best capacity of production in business with equal or inferior energy consumption," Palacín said. Among these strategies are the Catalan Strategy for the Energy Renovation of Buildings, the Plan for Savings and Efficiency in Public Buildings and the Action Plan for Energy Efficiency in Industry, he explained.

The Catalan Strategy for the Energy Renovation of Buildings was elaborated in 2013 and has an aim of completion by 2020. Its main goal is to achieve a 14.4% reduction in energy consumption by buildings from 2012 levels and a 2.6 million-ton reduction of CO2 emissions through the renovation of existing private and public buildings. In presenting this plan, the Catalan Government stressed the use of renewable energies, especially in private homes, and called for the energetic renovation of the 1.5 million buildings built in the territory before 1980 at an estimated cost of €8 billion.

The Plan for Savings and Efficiency in Public Buildings, which was rolled out starting in 2011, called for improvements in energy consumption by public buildings. According to the Catalan Government's presentation, the public sector is one of the biggest consumers of energy, using 1,000 GWh per year at a cost of €100 million. The plan aims  to reduce dependency on electricity by reducing the energy consumption of the buildings used by the Catalan Government. The measure initially outlined checkpoints for reducing energy usage by 12% by 2014; cutting the energy bill by 3.2% by 2013, 4.4% by 2014 and 15.2% by 2020; and generating an investment in energy savings and energy efficiency by private firms of €296 million during this timeline.

Finally, the Action Plan for Energy Efficiency in Industry intends to reduce the final energetic intensity of industry by 4.7% in the period from 2011 to 2020. The industry sector is the second-highest consumer of energy, behind transportation, although when factoring in the primary sector, industry amounts to 55% of Catalonia's energy consumption. As outlined in the Action Plan, however, the primary motivation used to entice companies to comply with these goals is to reduce operating costs. Energy costs can comprise 30% to 40% of operating costs for industry, so by lowering the cost of that factor, Catalan businesses can be more competitive.

Spanish Government's resistance holding Catalan renewables back

The strategies employed by the Catalan Government as motivation to reduce the country's carbon footprint are the first step toward reducing CO2 emissions. The next step is to replace the energies that produce CO2 with green alternatives, and the Catalan Government has stated that its goal by 2050 is to have all of its energy come from renewable sources.

As of 2012 – the latest data available – Catalonia received 15.6% of its electricity from renewable sources, a figure that "has not followed the pace it should have had, so it has not exploited the country's full potential in renewable energy," Palacín said. The Catalan Government Director added that Catalonia's focus in renewables is in biomass, solar and wind energy, but regulations from the Spanish Government "prevent the renewable energy industry from developing normally." For instance, he said that even though solar power has "great room for growth," especially since the start-up costs of photovoltaic power have recently decreased, the Spanish Ministry of Industry, Energy and Tourism (MINETUR) has "practically paralysed" it.

In a recently submitted draft decree, MINETUR demonstrated support for the deterrent figure of the backup toll, the sum that must be paid to connect to the power grid in cases where auto-consumption – producing energy on-site – is possible. In addition, it would establish a system of penalties for illegal auto-consumption facilities, fining them based on energy production – a solar tax, in other words.  Palacín said the highest penalty for illegal auto-consumption facilities that create interferences in the electrical network can reach €60 million, which is twice as expensive as the penalty for committing negligence with nuclear waste resulting into a leak (€30 million). With such  disproportionate fines for illegal power generation installations, it seems the Spanish Government is trying to discourage the expansion of energy auto-consumption.  

Palacín added that the Catalan Government has "few [executive and legislative] powers in energy," none of which encompass subsidies. So from an economic standpoint, in order for alternative energies to be adopted into the mainstream, they must meet market prices in order to be a viable option for energy companies and consumers. The company Red Eléctrica de España controls the electrical grid and establishes which electricity production centres contribute to the network. Although the company's administration has some leeway on which criteria fit the electrical network, the powers are ultimately in the hands of MINETUR.

As far as the Spanish Government's interests go, the primary concern is choosing energies that eliminate the tariff deficit the Spanish State would have to pay to the electric companies from the regulated price. During the course of reforming the energy sector in Spain, Palacín said Catalonia suggested a model where price-fixing was more transparent and energy was considered a sustainability factor rather than an economic one, "but the [Spanish] Ministry prioritised economic criteria and rejected our contributions."

Martín-Vide tended to agree with Catalonia's suggestions. When asked what the best path to eliminating CO2 emissions is, he said, "A change of energy model, within a change of the economic model in which the growth of use – which is to say, GDP growth – is not the main objective is the only way." However, Martín-Vide said that Catalonia's goals related to climate change cannot be separated from Spain's because climate does not have administrative borders and also because of the close economic, social and cultural connections shared between them. Furthermore, Spain is inseparable from the EU, so "the actions to be taken in Catalonia must be framed in [Spanish] and European policies," he said.

The discrepancy between Madrid's view of how the energy system should work and how Catalonia would like it to work brings into view, as do so many other matters, the question of Catalan independence. One of the chief debates in the issue of self-determination is the way Catalonia has disproportionately fed tax money into Spanish Government's coffers, while it was getting back much less compared to other Autonomous Communities. The argument in the case of energy is, as Ramon Garriga (from the IREC) put it, "with another situation the Catalan Government will help much more than they can do now for our industry and to improve efficiency in its processes. I am sure." But until Catalonia "can decide on its money," it must defer to the regulations of the Spanish State.

Lower prices on renewable energy will help the sector grow

In the face of the reality of Catalonia's energy situation, Garriga said the best way for renewables to compete in the energy market is to make them cheaper overall. He said green energy will grow starting from the point where "we don't need extra money to install these renewables." The ultimate goal for so-called "new energy," he said, is to for it to be quality, continuous and clean.

Garriga said that wind and photovoltaic energy are both nearing this point, but the real key to selling them as consistent sources of electricity is to be able to store the energy once it is generated in the case there is a "lack of production," as in cloudy or non-windy days. He continued, saying that is one of the big challenges IREC is working to overcome, so that renewable energies can have a reserve supply in case of an accident.

Biomass is a renewable energy that is already being expanded in Catalonia, and because the energy is stored in the biomass itself, it is available upon demand. Because there is such a large wooded area in Catalonia, Palacín said, burning biomass for fuel can be employed as a strategy for managing forests and preventing wildfires. Even though biomass boilers generate energy by using combustible fuel, the CO2 released is the equivalent of what would be released if the biomass had decayed in nature, therefore not adding any avoidable CO2 to the carbon cycle. However, it is likely that the biomass used for generating energy is being produced in a faster way as if it would have grown and died naturally.

But overall, the first question energy producers must answer is that of efficiency. Garriga said that includes making windmills more aerodynamic and reducing the weight of solar panels so it takes less material to support them. Advances in biomass technologies would let larger capacity plants produce at efficiency levels comparable to coal-fired plants. "And we are advancing in this sense," he said. "We are obtaining lower prices day-to-day" he highlighted.

The move to completely green energy begins now

If Catalonia aims to achieve its goal of getting all of its energy from renewable sources in the next 35 years, there is some major planning to be done starting now. One of the first factors that will decide how renewables will grow, according to Garriga, is deciding on the fate of nuclear energy.

While nuclear power plants are a complicated issue in terms of radioactive waste storage, their electricity generation produces zero carbon emissions (although emissions are produced in the long and complex processes of construction and dismantling). In addition, Catalonia has gotten around half of its electricity from nuclear sources in recent years, so that portion of the power network would have to be phased out and replaced by renewables somehow. So in this way, the development of green energies will coincide with how much longer public opinion decides to keep nuclear plants open.

And the question of nuclear plants is a long-term decision-making process, not one that can be decided as the situation presents itself. Extending the life of nuclear plants by a few years at a time and making stop-and-go decisions is impractical, Garriga said, because over time plants need improvements and renovations, and no one will want to contribute to necessary changes if there isn't enough time to recover the investment.

However, the transition to clean energy is not one that can be made all at once. Extending nuclear power would also allow more time for research on alternative energies – to improve efficiency, make better materials and develop policies for employing new power sources.  "When there is a big change like this one, this decarbonisation of the energy … that is a critical change that is always the help of political measures, of political decisions to create in society the necessary ecosystem to receive correctly this message," Garriga said.

The reality of the situation, Martín-Vide pointed out, is that reaching the aforementioned goals in terms of carbon emissions "will be difficult to reach, but it is not impossible." Despite the challenge, he said reaching it is "absolutely necessary, along with the rest of the world."

The scope of climate change is far beyond Catalonia

Signing the Under 2 MOU was, for Catalonia, an expression of its individual commitment to working on mitigating the effects of global climate change. However, as a territory that is (still) subject to the higher authority of the Spanish Government, there is only so much Catalonia can do. "The role of regional authorities in the fight against global warming is important and very effective, given its proximity to the citizen and their authorities in areas such as the environment, but it could be much more if there was a greater degree of capacity of decision and execution," Palacín said. He elaborated by saying Catalonia's push to cut carbon emissions lack continuity because it has such limited powers in matters like energy.

Martín-Vide argued, however, that Catalan efforts to reduce CO2 emissions will be meaningless unless the rest of the world follows suit. "Avoiding reaching the 2ºC temperature increase depends on the emissions of the entire planet, not an area of 32,000 km2," like the Catalan territory, he said. "Even if Catalonia reduced its greenhouse gas emissions to zero, the temperature rise would continue in the same progression as the current one," he continued.

Perhaps Catalonia collaborating with other regional governments could be a step in this direction, but in the meantime, it is mostly in the hands of the Spanish Government to renovate the country's overarching energy model. And furthermore, more stringent regulations on energy and industry coming from the European Union institutions could aid this process.

Garriga said this whole process would require a paradigm shift, starting from an individual level. Consumers need to be convinced that methods of saving on energy are beneficial – that a good car is one that consumes electricity rather than gasoline and that a good building is one that has a net energy consumption of zero. Making political decisions with this mentality, he continued, will allow for more research and development to improve upon the energy sources that are already available.