• Sustainability in tourism: make or break

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    One of the consequences of the COVID-19 health crisis has been the increased awareness of the population and, by extension, that of politicians regarding the need to include sustainability criteria in economic policies in order to promote a more sustainable and resilient reactivation of the economy. The tourism industry is no stranger to these trends; firstly, because its business can be adversely affected by the consequences of climate change and, secondly, because there is ample scope for the industry to become more sustainable. This article attempts to determine what we understand by sustainability in the tourism sector, how it can be measured, the current situation of Spain’s tourism industry and where it is heading.

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    What do we mean when we talk about sustainability in tourism?

    Spain’s tourism industry has developed exceptionally in recent years, becoming one of the country’s main sources of business, income and employment. However, this strong development had also led to the emergence of some negative actions and social unease regarding the role played by tourism at certain destinations and moments until, in 2020, the coronavirus crisis paralysed the sector’s activity and highlighted its social and economic relevance for many areas in Spain. At present, the policies implemented by the European authorities and the Spanish government itself clearly indicate a way out of the crisis based on criteria of sustainability and resilience which, in the case of the tourism sector, consists of two aspects. On the one hand, tourism is particularly sensitive to the impact of climate change, such as rising sea levels, extreme weather events, environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. On the other hand, as tourism is an activity that involves high levels of atmospheric pollution and puts great pressure on natural resources, there is ample room for improvement to make the sector more sustainable.

    The World Tourism Organization defines

    the principles of sustainability in terms of the environmental, economic and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development

    In this respect, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) defines the principles of sustainability in terms of three areas: environmental, economic and socio-cultural. The first area aims to make optimal use of natural and environmental resources, as well as to preserve biological diversity. The economic aspect corresponds to tourism’s impact on the economy of the locality receiving tourists, in such a way as to promote long-term viable activities, with stable employment opportunities and well-distributed socio-economic benefits. Finally, the socio-cultural aspect seeks to conserve and strengthen the cultural and architectural assets and traditional values of the tourist destination in question.

    How can we measure the sector’s progress towards sustainability?

    In order to gauge the degree of sustainability in the sector and the steps that should be taken in the future, we have created a relevant indicator for each of the three aspects defined by the UNWTO regarding tourism’s sustainability. It should be noted that our analysis has been carried out using data prior to 2020, as the effect of the pandemic on these indicators would distort the analysis contained in this article.

    Most of the tourism industry’s greenhouse gas emissions

    concentrated in the transportation sector

    In environmental terms, we have taken the trend in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere by the sectors that make up Spain’s tourism industry.6 For this analysis, we have only taken into account the trend in the three gases that are most emitted into the atmosphere: carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and carbon monoxide (CO). The first conclusion that can be drawn is that most of the GHG emissions come from the transport sector (accounting for around 12% of tourism GDP), specifically the emission of nitrogen oxides resulting from combustion engines. These sectors are among the most polluting of all industries. Moreover, the pollution level has increased since 2013 for air transport, and although they have decreased for land transport they are still at an incredibly high level. With respect to accommodation and hospitality services, as well as travel agency and tour operator activities, carbon monoxide is the pollutant emitted most into the atmosphere.7 Although the pollution level are not alarming, far from moderating they actually grew by 78% in the case of accommodation and 38% in the case of agencies and tour operators between 2013 and 2019.

    • 6. This analysis considers the data provided by the National Statistics Institute by branch of activity: accommodation services, food and beverage services (branch 55-56, according to CNAE 2009); activities of travel agencies, tour operators, booking services and related activities (branch 79); land and tube transportation (branch 49), and air transport (branch 51).
    • 7. This type of GHG is produced every time a fossil fuel such as natural gas, propane gas, petrol, oil, kerosene, wood or coal is ignited. In other words, the sector produces this as a result of people using heating and cooling systems and combustion stoves.

    Greenhouse gas emissions by tourism sector

    Accommodation services, food and beverage services

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    Activities of travel agencies, tour operators and related activities

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    Land transport

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    Air transport

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    The indicators of economic value consider the contribution made by tourism to the economic sustainability of each destination. The variables we have used to measure this are the average number of overnight stays per month (volume of activity) and the expenditure per tourist (value of that activity). The volume and value of tourism are essential to the economic sustainability of a destination: the greater the expenditure per day, the more efficient the destination in terms of generating tourism value.

    The relationship between volume (number of overnight stays) and expenditure per tourist can be seen in the figure below.8 In the most tourism-oriented provinces (those with more than 10 million overnight stays per year), average expenditure is around 300 euros per tourist. The case of Las Palmas is particularly negative in this respect: it ranks second in terms of overnight stays but only has a modest average expenditure. Among the rest of the provinces, the average expenditure per tourist is below 175 euros. Girona, Alicante and Gipuzkoa are particularly positive in economic terms as they typically have a more modest volume of hotel stays but a very high expenditure per tourist.

    • 8. Total tourist expenditure by province has been estimated using in-person card payments by domestic and international tourists via CaixaBank POS terminals in 2019.

    Economic indicators: tourist expenditure vs. overnight stays

    Y axis: Expenditure/tourist; X axis: Overnight stays (million)

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    Source: CaixaBank Research, based on data from CaixaBank and the National Statistics Institute.

    As a basic indicator to gauge the social and cultural impact of different tourist destinations, we have measured congestion in the various provinces as this influences residents’ satisfaction and is a basic indicator of the social impact of tourism on a community. To this end, we have used the variable of the number of overnight stays in proportion to the resident population, the results of which can be seen in summary form in the map below. In general terms, no significant tourism pressure is observed in most of the country.9 However, the most noteworthy cases are the following: (i) the island regions, eminently beach and nature destinations which receive a lot of international tourism,10 (ii) certain areas close to the border with France that offer beach and mountain tourism (Huesca, Tarragona and Girona) with a small local population and that are visited by neighbouring countries, as well as (iii) certain towns in Andalusia that receive both domestic and international tourism (Malaga, Huelva and Almeria). It seems that congestion in the most tourist-oriented destinations has actually worsened in recent years, given that the population has grown, on average, much less than the number of tourists.11  

    • 9. In Spain, the ratio of the volume of overnight stays to the resident population is slightly above seven, which can be taken as a reference for the average congestion for the country as a whole. Congestion above these levels can be considered as high. In the case of the EU, it is around four, according to data provided by Eurostat.
    • 10. In fact, the Balearic Islands stand out as the European region with the highest congestion in terms of the number of annual visitors they receive, according to regional data provided by Eurostat, ahead of the autonomous province of Bolzano (Italy), the Algarve (Portugal), Tyrol and Salzburg (Austria).
    • 11. In the past 10 years, Spain’s population has grown by 2% on average while international tourist arrivals have increased by nearly 60%.

    Overnight stays as a share of the resident population

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    Source: CaixaBank Research, based on data from the National Statistics Institute.
    Towards a new, more sustainable and competitive model

    In light of the available indicators, it seems evident that there is room for improvement over the coming years. Regarding the environment, pollution levels have actually increased in recent years and the potential areas of improvement range from promoting more energy-efficient buildings and more modern air conditioning systems to more sustainable travel, among other aspects. In economic terms, there is no doubt regarding the importance of the sector for the Spanish economy as a whole, although it will be necessary to keep an eye on those destinations with high levels of congestion, where the sector’s economic contribution is modest. Finally, in socio-cultural terms there are some regions with an increasingly excessive tourism demand, which can make the resident populations uneasy due to congestion problems in small towns with limited public services, especially as they are not always prepared to absorb such a huge seasonal demand.

    The sector’s agenda for sustainability involves implementing initiatives that pre-date COVID-19 and now make it possible to take advantage of funds from Europe.12 Specifically, the Spanish tourism industry is covered by the government’s Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan via the policy of «Modernisation and digitisation of the industrial fabric and SMEs, recovery of tourism and promotion of an entrepreneurial nation Spain», in which component 14 outlines a Modernisation and Competitiveness Plan for the Tourism Sector. Within the latter, the area that will receive the most investment is the Strategy for Sustainable Tourism at Destinations, which has an estimated budget of 1.9 billion euros for the next three years.13

    • 12. At the beginning of 2019, the Spanish government and Secretary of State for Tourism had already begun work on Spain’s Sustainable Tourism Strategy 2030, which took into account the need to include sustainability criteria for the sector and began to introduce the objectives and criteria that, through the NGEU funds, have now been established in the new Strategy for Sustainable Tourism at Destinations.
    • 13. The government held the first extraordinary call for Sustainability Plans in November 2021. 615 million euros were disbursed to the autonomous regions, taking into account economic variables (percentage of tourism GDP with respect to regional GDP and the reduction in the number of tourism workers between December 2019 and December 2020), regional variables (the size of the autonomous region as a percentage of the total area of Spain and population density) and tourism variables (number of international tourists received in 2019 and spending by these tourists).
    The ultimate goal is none other than to try

    to improve the competitiveness of Spain’s tourism industry by means of a new model with greater added value

    The objective of these initiatives is not only to ensure that Spanish destinations are capable of integrating environmental, socio-economic and regional sustainability criteria into the tourism products and services they supply but also to develop resilience strategies in the face of current challenges (climate change, excessive demand for tourism, health and safety-related crises) and to achieve greater cohesion among the different regions. In other words, to improve the distribution of the burdens on the country and establish an integrated approach to help slow down its depopulation. The ultimate goal is none other than to try to improve the competitiveness of Spain’s tourism industry by means of a new model that is more sustainable, of higher quality and, therefore, of greater added value.

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  • The use of water in agriculture: making progress in modernising irrigation and efficient water management

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    This winter’s drought has highlighted one of the most important challenges facing Spain’s agrifood sector: improving how water resources are used given the prospect of their availability becoming more limited.

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    This winter’s drought has highlighted one of the most important challenges facing Spain’s agrifood sector: improving how water resources are used given the prospect of their availability becoming more limited. Climate change demands that huge efforts be made to adapt Spain’s irrigation system to the new circumstances and, in this respect, the investments made possible by the Next Generation EU (NGEU) funds will be a huge support. The main objective of these funds is to modernise irrigation systems and improve their governance, promoting water savings and energy efficiency through more efficient irrigation systems, self-consumption electricity generated from renewable energy sources, and the use of non-conventional water sources such as reclaimed waste water or desalinated water.

    Water scarcity, a challenge for the world’s agriculture

    Water is a crucial resource for agriculture. Globally, 72% of all freshwater extracted is used by the agricultural sector. Of the remainder, 12% is used by industry and to produce energy, while 16% is used directly for human consumption. The FAO estimates that, by 2050, agriculture will have to produce almost 50% more food, fibre and biofuel than in 2012 to meet global demand,11 a goal that will be difficult to achieve without increasing the area devoted to irrigation considering the higher yields produced: non-irrigated agriculture produces 60% of the world’s food and occupies 80% of cultivated land, while irrigated agriculture produces 40% on 20% of the land.

    • 11. The FAO predicts an increase in demand for biofuel driven by the more limited use of fossil fuels, as well as an increase in food consumption in the face of a growing world population, increased urbanisation and a shift from a primarily starch-based diet to a growing demand for more water-intensive meat and dairy products as incomes rise in many countries. See the SOLAW Report «The State of Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture», FAO (2021).
    Water is an essential commodity for agriculture. Climate change is making water a scarcer and more unpredictable resource.

    More intensive agricultural practices are putting more stress on freshwater resources, further exacerbated by the consequences of climate change. In many regions of the world, including some in Spain (see the map below), the resource is subject to high levels of water stress.12 Furthermore, water stress levels are likely to increase in those areas that are currently under most stress as the effects of climate change intensify. In Spain, an overall larger reduction in water resources is expected in the south of the mainland and on the islands.13

    • 12. Water stress is deemed to be «high» when, on average, more than 40% of the available water supply is extracted each year and when the demand for water is greater than the amount available during a certain period of time. Spain is one of 44 countries with «high» levels of water stress (World Resources Institute, 2019).
    • 13. See «Evaluación del impacto del cambio climático en los recursos hídricos y sequías en España», CEDEX, 2017.
    Integrated water management must make the achievement of environmental targets compatible with socio-economic goals.
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    This serious situation makes it essential to have a system of integrated planning and management of water resources that guarantees supply in sufficient quantity and quality, based on criteria of sustainability, adaptation to climate change and in line with the principles of the circular economy. Likewise, water management must promote compliance with the environmental targets set by the EU in the European Green Deal and the Water Framework Directive, as well as achieving the targets set by the United Nations 2030 Agenda in Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6, Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all).

    The importance of irrigation in Spain

    In Spain, the agricultural sector accounts for 82.1% of water use (households use 12.8% and the remaining 5.1% is used for other economic activities).14 In fact, irrigation is a fundamental part of our agrifood system: the irrigated area in Spain accounted for 22.9% of the cultivated area in 2021 (7.8% of the total geographical area) but its production contributes slightly more than 50% of the final plant production. Without any doubt, irrigation is the fundamental pillar on which the production and export potential of the fruit and vegetable sector rests. In fact, Spain is the leading exporter of fruit and vegetables in the EU and one of the top three exporters in the world, along with China and the US, a prominent position that has given it the name of «the vegetable garden of Europe».

    • 14. Data from the satellite water account (INE) for 2010, latest available data. Most of the water used by the agricultural sector is for irrigation. Water consumption by livestock is low. However, of great importance is the effect that the production and management of livestock waste can have on bodies of water.
    Irrigation has undergone a continuous process of modernisation that is leading to the progressive expansion of efficient irrigation techniques.

    The charts below show the considerable increase in irrigated land in Spain between 2004 and 2021, up by more than half a million hectares to 3.9 million hectares at present.15 During this period, however, water consumption by the agricultural sector has remained fairly stable (or has even tended to decrease slightly) thanks to a significant effort to modernise irrigation systems. In fact, over the years the area irrigated by localised (drip) systems, a much more efficient technique with a very low demand for water, has increased to the detriment of the gravity system, which consumes much more. Sprinkler systems, a method more typical of herbaceous crops, have also been implemented over the years.

    • 15. This increase in irrigation has been accompanied by the development of hydraulic infrastructures such as reservoirs and water transfers, which are essential for the transport and control of water.

    The amount of irrigated land has increased considerably

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    Breakdown of water used by farms by irrigation technique

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    This expansion of more efficient irrigation techniques reflects a coherence with the irrigation policies developed in recent years aimed at achieving sustainable, efficient agriculture. However, as already mentioned, the modernisation of irrigation has not been accompanied by aggregate savings in water as there is often a simultaneous intensification of crops, achieving a higher yield per m3 of water used but, on the other hand, the amount of irrigated water returned to bodies of water is reduced.16

    By crop type, the largest areas being irrigated in 202117 were: grain cereals, which accounted for 24.1% of the total irrigated area, followed by olive groves (22.6%), non-citrus fruit trees (10.6%) and vines (10.3%). These three types of crops are the ones that have seen the greatest growth in irrigated area between 2004 and 2021, olive groves particularly, adding almost 400,000 hectares. On the other hand, if the irrigated area is analysed in the total of each of the crop groups, it can be observed that irrigation is the majority in some of them, such as citrus and vegetables (93.7% and 88.4%, respectively).

    The irrigation technique used depends largely on the type of crop. Gravity irrigation is mainly used for cereals and forage crops, accounting for 45.0% and 53.4% of their respective irrigated crop areas. Sprinkler irrigation is mainly used for tubers (77.9%) and other herbaceous crops such as legumes, industrial plants and cereals. Finally, localised (drip) irrigation is the most common system for woody crops such as olive groves, vines and fruit trees, both citrus and non-citrus. The drip irrigation system is also important for vegetables (52.2%), including the area of land covered by greenhouses.

    • 16. Irrigated water returned represents all water flows coming from irrigation and returning to rivers, groundwater, etc.
    • 17. Data from «Encuesta sobre Superficies y Rendimientos de Cultivos» (ESYRCE, 2021) and «Análisis de los regadíos españoles, año 2020», both published by MAPA.
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    Notable regional differences in irrigation

    The extent of irrigation, crop specialisation and irrigation techniques show a remarkable geographical diversity (see the table below). For example, in the northern regions, abundant rainfall makes irrigation unnecessary in many cases while the plateau, which is more water-deficient, has a moderate share of irrigation. The Community of Valencia and the Region of Murcia are the autonomous regions with the highest percentage of irrigated agricultural land (around 40%). As is widely known, they specialise in the production of fruit and vegetables, which tend to use drip irrigation techniques.

    Andalusia is the second region with the highest percentage of irrigation as a proportion of its geographical area (12.9%), with a significant presence of drip-irrigated olive groves. In Castile and Leon, cereal production is dominated by sprinkler and self-propelled irrigation, while vines predominate in Castilla-La Mancha (51% of the region’s irrigated area is devoted to this crop) with drip irrigation. Gravity irrigation is mainly found in the irrigated lands of the Ebro basin (Catalonia, Aragon and Navarre) for herbaceous crops.

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    Irrigated crop yields are naturally higher than non-irrigated yields, with notable differences across different crop types and regions. Note that regional differences in yield can be considerable for certain crops, even between plots located in close proximity because yield can be affected by many other factors in addition to irrigation (plot orientation, environmental factors, fertilisers, etc.). For illustrative purposes, the following table shows the average irrigated and non-irrigated crop yields, measured as the number of kilograms produced per hectare for three crops that are representative and widespread in Spain: grapes for processing (wine), olives for milling (olive oil) and soft wheat.

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    Irrigated crop yields are higher than non-irrigated yields, with notable differences across different crop types and regions.
    The NGEU funds: a fresh impetus for modernising irrigation

    The Plan to improve efficiency and sustainability in irrigation (investment 1 of Component 3 of the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan, PRTR) establishes an investment of 563 million euros to modernise over 100,000 hectares of existing irrigated land.18 In 2021, around 260 million euros of this item had already been allocated, corresponding to the first phase of the irrigation modernisation programme implemented by the public corporation for agricultural infrastructure (Seiasa). The Plan prioritises those actions with a high impact on environmental sustainability or with an important innovative component, such as the incorporation of technologies and digital tools in irrigation communities to achieve more efficient irrigation.19 As for actions with a high environmental impact, priority is given to irrigation modernisation actions that include the generation of self-consumption of electricity from renewable energy sources; for instance by using water conduits to generate electricity, or actions that use non-conventional water sources such as reclaimed waste water or desalinated water.20

    • 18. This amount rises to 704 million euros when the expected contributions from irrigation communities are included.
    • 19. The Agroclimatic Information System for Irrigation (SiAR) provides information on the water demands of irrigated crops, helping to optimise the use of water resources.
    • 20. See «Fomento de la reutilización de las aguas residuales - Informe complementario», MITECO, 2020.
    NGEU funds prioritise irrigation modernisation schemes with greater environmental impact and incorporating the use of new technologies.
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    Modernising irrigation should help to comply with the EU Water Framework Directive as it contributes to the protection of surface water by reducing its extraction for irrigation. It can also help to meet the objectives of the Nitrates Directive21 and those of reducing soil contamination from phytosanitary products, since the implementation of sprinkler and drip irrigation systems enables fertilisers and phytosanitary products in the irrigation water to be added the dose strictly necessary and at the time the crop needs them. The use of reclaimed water, which already contains nutrients, would also help to reduce the amount of fertilisers used. All this would be in line with the EU policies that form part of the European Green Pact, such as the Farm to Fork strategy and the European strategy on adaptation to climate change.

    The PRTR also has significant measures to encourage reforms, along with the investment plan. The government proposes to establish a National Irrigation Board, a Spain-wide governance mechanism that will enable all representatives of public authorities and affected sectors to promote and facilitate cooperation, consultation and the sharing of information on all aspects related to irrigation. An Irrigation Sustainability Observatory will also be set up to provide objective data on the economic, social and environmental impact of irrigation on the territory.22

    In short, irrigation is essential for agricultural production, key to food security and a fundamental pillar of rural development. Its modernisation is crucial in order to achieve a competitive, profitable and water-efficient agricultural industry. Looking to the future, climate change scenarios for Spain predict that less water will be available (available water resources will decrease between 12% and 40% before the end of the century, depending on the region) and a more irregular distribution of rainfall, making it essential to continue improving the efficiency and sustainability of irrigation.

    • 21. In December 2021, the European Commission decided to refer Spain to the CJEU for failing to take sufficient measures in relation to nitrate pollution from agricultural sources. Return flows from irrigation are considered to be the largest diffuse (non-point) contributors to surface and groundwater contamination.
    • 22. On 9 March 2022, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food launched a public consultation on the draft royal decree to set up the board and observatory for irrigation.
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  • How the agrifood sector is becoming more sustainable

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    Climate change and the struggle to prevent it pose enormous challenges for agrifood production in Spain. In turn, improving the sustainability and resilience of the sector will be key to achieving the environmental targets set out in the European Green Deal. Agri-environmental indicators show that, despite some progress in recent years, the sector needs to tackle significant aspects, such as reducing the use of chemical pesticides, fertilisers and antimicrobials in agriculture, as well as improving animal health and welfare, increasing efficiency in the use of energy and water resources, promoting food consumption that is more sustainable and healthier and reducing food loss and waste, fostering a circular economy. The new CAP, with eco-schemes as its key measure, and the Next Generation EU funds will support the sector’s green and digital transition.

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    The threat of climate change and transition to a sustainable food system

    Spain’s agriculture has traditionally benefited from a privileged geographical location and climate but it is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Increased soil erosion, floods, droughts and wildfires, along with an increase in pests and diseases, are just some of the direct effects. In turn, primary sector activity also contributes to climate change: crop specialisation and intensification, the use of chemical inputs and the industrialisation of livestock production all have negative impacts on water, soil, air, biodiversity and habitat conservation.

    Agriculture contributes to climate change and, in turn, suffers directly from its consequences

    It must therefore move towards a new model that protects the natural resources on which it depends.

    EU countries are increasingly aware that they need not only to mitigate climate change but also adapt to it. Consequently, given growing concerns for the environment, the agrifood sector must move forward in its transition from a system that emits greenhouse gases (GHG), demands a large amount of natural resources and also pollutes them, to a new model, increasingly widespread, that provides healthy, nutritious food sustainably, protecting the natural resources on which agricultural activity itself depends.

    In addition to improving the sustainability of agrifood production and downstream distribution, another important lever for change is to promote healthier and more environmentally sustainable consumption patterns. For example, a diet with a larger proportion of vegetables, organic foods, seasonal and local produce. Similarly, the reduction of food loss and waste and promotion of the circular economy are also key factors in moving towards a sustainable food system, as stated in the European Commission’s «Farm to Fork» strategy.

    The Farm to Fork strategy

    The Farm to Fork strategy
    Source: European Commission.
    From the European Green Deal to the CAP Strategic Plans

    The EU is deploying a wide range of tools to provide stakeholders with mechanisms and incentives to support this transition to a sustainable food system and, in turn, to help achieve the targets set out in the European Green Deal. One important addition in the reformed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which will enter into force in January 2023, is the drafting of National Strategic Plans to establish priorities in terms of aid and incentives for the various production subsectors.6 The star measure is eco-schemes, which are voluntary and reward sustainable practices. Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture has proposed two eco-schemes, with a budget of 1,107.49 million euros, which group sustainable practices into two areas: agroecology and low carbon agriculture. The first group includes activities such as pasture management using sustainable mowing, crop rotation and the maintenance of non-productive areas and other biodiversity aspects. The second group includes extensive grazing, conservation agriculture and the maintenance of living or dead vegetation cover.

    • 6. Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food must submit its Strategic Plan to the European Commission by 30 December 2021.
    The new CAP, with eco-schemes as its key measure,

    together with Next Generation EU funds, will support the sector’s green and digital transition.

    In addition to the CAP, the European NGEU funds will also help to finance the green and digital transition of the primary sector. In particular, item 3 of Spain’s Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan, aimed at the environmental and digital transformation of the agrifood and fisheries system, provides for an investment of 1,502.8 million euros. The plan is based on four fundamental pillars: (i) improving efficiency in irrigation, (ii) promoting sustainability and competitiveness in agriculture and livestock farming, (iii) a digitalisation strategy for the agrifood sector and the rural environment, and (iv) modernising the fisheries sector, by promoting sustainability, research, innovation and digitalisation.

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    Environmental indicators in the primary sector

    The European Commission has analysed the situation of individual Member States in relation to their contribution to each of the Green Deal ambitions. The table below lists these targets and the reference values of these indicators for the main countries.7

    To make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, the first milestone has been set for 2030: reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 55% compared with the 1990 level. While GHG emissions from EU agriculture have fallen by a significant 20% since 1990, no progress has been made since 2005. And in Spain the situation has been reversed: emissions have increased since 1990 (6.5%) with just a modest reduction since 2005 (–3.7%).

    • 7. «Commission recommendations to Member States as regards their strategic plans for the CAP», European Commission, December 2020.
    In relative terms, GHG emissions by Spain’s agricultural sector

    are lower than the EU average, which has set itself the target of at least 55% below 1990 levels by 2030.

    Despite this trend, it is important to note that, in relative terms, the sector is responsible for 12.0% of the economy’s total GHG emissions compared with an EU average of 12.7%. Furthermore, if we take into account the fact that the primary sector contributes 2.9% of GDP compared with 1.6% in the EU, the result is that GHG emissions by Spain’s agrifood sector per unit of GVA are significantly lower than the European average (1.2 kg/euro compared with 1.7 kg/euro in the EU).8 Similarly, emissions from agriculture per unit of agricultural land (tonnes of CO2 equivalent per hectare) are lower in Spain (1.6 compared with 2.5 in the EU).

    The second EU milestone is contained in the Farm to Fork strategy, which sets a target of 50% reduction in the use and risk of chemical pesticides by 2030. In recent years, Spain has significantly reduced the use of this type of chemical and the challenge is to continue moving in this direction. The target for antimicrobial resistance is a 50% reduction of the overall antimicrobial sales for farm and aquaculture animals by 2030, compared with the EU baseline in 2018. In this respect, Spain lags behind the EU average.

    On the other hand, Spain performs positively both in its share of agricultural land used for organic farming, an aspect we discuss in more detail in the next section, and the proportion of agricultural land occupied by highly diverse landscape features. In this case Spain, with 13.2% of its land, already exceeds the target of 10%.9

    • 8. Data from the European Commission’s Common Monitoring and Evaluation Framework (CMEF) for the CAP 2014-2020, https://agridata.ec.europa.eu/extensions/DataPortal/cmef_indicators.html
    • 9. EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030.

    European Green Deal targets and reference values

    European Green Deal targets and reference values
    Notes: GHG stands for greenhouse gases. UAA stands for utilised agricultural area. Source: CaixaBank Research, based on the European Commission’s COM (2020) 846.
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    Nitrate pollution from agriculture remains one of the greatest pressures on the aquatic environment. In this respect, the EU has set a target of reducing nutrient losses by at least 50% by 2030 while ensuring there is no deterioration in soil fertility, an aspect in which Spain needs to improve considerably. An increasing number of EU countries are also affected by water scarcity, often caused by excessive abstraction of water for agriculture and livestock. Climate change will further aggravate the problem of water availability in many regions, including Spain.

    Finally, the new CAP establishes digitalisation as a priority across the board, believing that the transition towards a sustainable food system must be supported by knowledge, innovation and digitalisation. In this respect, one key factor in developing rural areas and reversing their depopulation is the availability of a fast, reliable internet connection. While there has been a notable increase in the proportion of households in rural areas with next-generation broadband access, there is still a significant gap with respect to urban areas. The goal is to cover 100% of the population by 2025.10

    • 10. This target is included in the Agenda España Digital 2025.
    58.7% of Spanish households in rural areas

    had access to fast broadband internet in 2019. The goal is to cover 100% of the population by 2025.

    The green and digital transition of European agriculture is also creating new business opportunities which the sector must take advantage of, for example by better aligning its production with evolving consumer tastes. Sustainability will become a competitive advantage for those companies and farms that achieve a balance between economic growth, environmental care and social well-being, while those that fail to comply with environmental standards will be penalised by increasingly demanding and environmentally aware consumers who identify with the most sustainable brands and products.

    A firm commitment to boosting organic production

    The commitment to more sustainable production schemes, such as organic farming,11 is relentless. Spain, with more than 2.44 million hectares of these crops in 2020, is the first country in the EU and the third in the world after Australia and Argentina. However, in terms of its share of utilised agricultural area (UAA), it is above the EU average, as noted in the previous section, but well below leading countries such as Austria, Estonia and Sweden, which exceed 20%. Four million additional hectares would be needed to achieve the 25% target set in the Organic Action Plan.

    • 11. Organic farming is a system of agrifood production and management that combines the best environmental practices, a high level of biodiversity and preservation of natural resources and the application of high animal welfare standards, so that products are obtained from natural substances and processes (MAPA).

    Share of utilised agricultural area under organic farming

    Last actualization: 14 November 2022 - 13:20

    Regarding organic operators,12 almost 90% out of a total of 50,047 in 2020 were primary producers while the rest were industrial operators and traders. However, the number of operators is growing much faster (more than double) further down the food chain.

    • 12. An organic operator can be an individual or company and must meet certain requirements to be able to produce, process, prepare or package food of agricultural origin in order for it to be marketed using the terms ecological, biological or organic. In Spain there is a General Register of Organic Operators (REGOE) that collates the information provided by each autonomous region.
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    By region, Andalusia leads the field both in terms of land under organic farming, with more than 45% of the total, and in terms of organic livestock farms, with almost 60%. By type of crop, cereals for grain production come top (43% of the total) and, by type of livestock, cattle (48%). Compared with other countries, the Spanish agrifood sector is the world’s leading organic producer of olive oil and wine and the second for citrus fruits and vegetables.

    However, one of the challenges facing organic production in Spain is the low domestic consumption: per capita consumption of these products in 2019 stood at 50.2 euros, a far cry from countries such as Denmark or Switzerland, which exceed 300 euros. As a result, most of Spain’s organic produce, around 60%, is exported.13 The change in habits brought about by the pandemic has boosted healthier, more sustainable and local consumption, so the trend in domestic consumption of organic produce is clearly upward.

    • 13. Sociedad Española de Agricultura Ecológica (SEAE), MAPA (2021), «Análisis de la caracterización y proyección de la producción ecológica española en 2019» and Ecovalia (2021), «Informe anual de la producción ecológica en España».
    Organic farming in Spain, on the rise

    Area under organic farming

    Last actualization: 14 November 2022 - 13:20

    Organic operators in the primary sector (producers)

    Last actualization: 14 November 2022 - 13:20

    Organic operators in the secondary sector (manufacturers and processors)

    Last actualization: 14 November 2022 - 13:20
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Central banks and climate change: to act or not to act

What role can central banks play in the fight against climate change? How could the ECB incorporate climate criteria into its decision-making processes, within the framework of its strategic review?

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Skyline de Londres dibujado sobre una hoja de árbol

Both individuals institutions can contribute to the fight against climate change. We, as consumers, can play our part as consumers, for example, by choosing products and services with a smaller carbon footprint. The public sector can play an even bigger role, by incentivising investment to improve energy efficiency and develop cleaner technologies and, above all, by introducing a carbon price. What about central banks? What role can they play? In this article, we focus on how the ECB (within the framework in the context of its strategic review) could incorporate climate criteria into its decision-making processes.

Why central banks should be proactive

Central banks in advanced economices – including the ECB – have price stability as their mandate. Some also set targets for other macroeconomic variables, such as employment. In any case, none includes the fight against climate change among their objectives. However, there is broad consensus that climate change has important implications for the economy and price stability, which central banks cannot ignore. As an example, the greater frequency and severity of adverse weather events could increase volatility in economic growth and price fluctuations. Indeed, some models estimate that the mere expectation of this happening is already affects inflation expectations and reduces the natural rate of interest,1 limiting the (already scarce) margin that monetary policy has to stimulate the economy. For the euro area, this factor poses an additional challenge for the ECB, as the impact of climate change is different across member states.

Moreover, as the EU treaties command, the ECB shall support the general economic policies in the Union, without prejudice to price stability. Since the fight against climate change is one of the European Commission’s strategic objectives (the Green Deal and the Next Generation EU recovery fund are a clear sign of this commitment), the ECB not only could, but should, incorporate climate change into its decision-making processes.

On the other hand, climate risks pose a threat to financial stability. They also pose a threat to the central bank itself, among other reasons because its balance sheet is exposed to climate risks through the sovereign and corporate debt securities it acquires on the market. Thus, in order for monetary policy to be correctly implemented, central banks would also need to properly manage their assets’ exposure to climate risks.

  • 1. See A. Dietrich et al. (2021). «The Expectations Channel of Climate Change: Implications for Monetary Policy». CEPR Discussion Paper 15,866.
Why central banks should not be proactive

There are also arguments against central banks playing an active role in the fight against climate change. On the one hand, it could be interpreted that, by acting in this area, monetary institutions would be overstepping their current mandates. Specifically, while there is broad consensus on the need to tackle climate change in the scientific sphere, it is a political decision. Governments are responsible for collecting society’s mandate in this area and, consequently, they are the main players in the sphere of climate policy. In this regard, a central bank taking sides and influencing the allocation of economic resources without a democratic mandate to do so could be perceived as a deterioration of its political independence. Furthermore, a central bank can have only a limited direct impact on emissions.

On the other hand, if a central bank decided to favour assets from less polluting sectors, it could be considered to be in breach of the principle of market neutrality.2 That said, in Europe, this principle has some caveats. The EU treaty specifies that the ECB should act in accordance with «the principle of an open market economy with free competition, favouring an efficient allocation of resources». In this regard, when there is a market failure (such as the lack of internalisation of climate risks in financial asset prices), resource allocation can be inefficient. Following this argument, the ECB’s discrimination of assets based on their exposure to climate risks could be coherent with the treaties in that it helps to mitigate a market failure and improve allocation efficiency. Indeed, the current composition of the ECB’s corporate debt portfolio does not comply with the principle of market neutrality. In particular, ECB’s corporate bond portfolio adequately replicates the full range of eligible bonds, but not the euro area’s economic structure.3 In addition, given the greater participation of emission-intensive sectors in the European corporate bond market, the ECB’s corporate bond portfolio has a significant carbon bias.

  • 2. Asset purchases should reflect the eligible market in order to ensure that the relative prices of securities in the market are not distorted.
  • 3. See M. Papoutsi and M. Schneider (2021). «How unconventional is green monetary policy?». Working Paper.
Euro area: debt held by the ECB, relative weight in the economy and emissions by sector
How could the ECB incorporate the fight against climate change into its mandate?

While central banks can act to help tackle climate change, it seems clear that they should not lead this fight. Instead, they can (within the limits of their mandate) complement the action of governments. In this regard, the ECB has several monetary policy and banking supervision tools at its disposal which it can use to incorporate climate risks into its decision-making processes and operations (see table).

Options for the ECB to incorporate climate criteria into its operations

First of all, the ECB could adjust its private asset purchase programme,4 only acquiring debt from companies that disclose certain climate information or that have a climate rating. This option, on which there is consensus in the ECB’s Governing Council, would improve the transparency of climate information and thus help the financial markets to classify issuers and assets according to their exposure to climate risks (thereby facilitating the internalisation of these risks within asset prices).

The ECB could also go a step further and discriminate on the basis of climate risks, showing a preference for the debt of companies that meet certain climate criteria, or excluding issuers and assets that are more carbon intensive (and thus more in conflict with the EU’s decarbonisation targets).5 These measures, while more proactive, would be difficult to implement without consistent disclosure of climate risks by companies, a practice which is still in its infancy and only applies to listed companies. They also raise some controversy within the ECB’s Governing Council, for several reasons. Firstly, as mentioned, they could conflict with the principle of market neutrality.6 Secondly, they are a temporary solution (asset purchases are part of the ECB’s expansive policy and theoretically will only be used for a limited time, whereas climate change is a long-term challenge). Thirdly, they could carry a reputational risk for the ECB if issuers turned out to be less green than they report.7

The second tool available to the ECB could make adjustments to its credit operations with financial institutions and to its collateral assets in order to favour green exposures, while making brown exposures less attractive. In particular, in addition to making access to finance conditional on the disclosure of climate information, the ECB could also adjust the interest rate of some of these operations depending on what the credit is to be used for. For example, the ECB could launch a green TLTRO financing programme in which the interest rate paid by banks is conditional on an increase in lending to activities aligned with the EU’s green taxonomy. Similarly, the ECB could adjust the valuation of the assets presented to it as collateral based on the climate risks it identifies (in fact, the ECB already accepts collateral with different haircuts,8 depending on the risk profile). Thus, it could assign a smaller haircut to assets that are more aligned with the EU’s green taxonomy.

In any event, given the current lack of consistent and standardised corporate information on exposure to climate risks, we can expect the ECB to act with caution and, at least initially, to prioritise ensuring broad disclosure of climate risks by firms and financial institutions. After all, such a practice would contribute to the internalisation of climate risks in asset prices and would serve as a basis for further action in this area.

Finally, in the field of banking supervision, the ECB has already begun to take steps to improve the quality and quantity of the available climate data, as well as the understanding of climate risks and their impact, so that they can be treated as a financial risk. A key measure in this regard is the publication of the ECB guide on climate-related and environmental risks,9 which focuses on the disclose of climate information by banks, among other aspects. In addition, the ECB has asked banks to draw up action plans to align their practices with the proposals set out in the guide (which will form part of the annual Supervisory Review and Evaluation Process, or SREP). Finally, another key measure is the launch in 2022 of climate stress tests, in which banks will perform a self assessment of their exposure to climate risks and their level of preparedness to address them – although this exercise will not have an impact on banks’ capital requirements for the time being.

 

  • 4. Adjustments to the public sector purchase programme (PSPP) would be more difficult to implement, as the ECB would find it difficult to differentiate between policies and due to the lack of country-by-country climate indicators.
  • 5. Some advanced-economy central banks have already moved in this direction: the Bank of Sweden (Riksbank) only buys bonds from companies that meet international sustainability rules and standards, while the Bank of England recently announced that it would adjust its corporate bond purchase programme to incorporate issuers’ climate impact.
  • 6. Moreover, for now there is still only a limited range of green bonds in existence, so if the ECB were to buy only green bonds, it could not implement its monetary policy properly.
  • 7. The issuance of green bonds does not necessarily translate into lower or decreasing emissions by companies. See T. Ehlers et al. (2020). «Green bonds and carbon emissions: exploring the case for a rating system at the firm level». BIS Quarterly Review.
  • 8. A haircut is applied to the value of these assets to mitigate the ECB’s liquidity and credit risks.
  • 9. ECB Banking Supervision (2020). «Guide on climate-related and environmental risks».