Climate protest in Madrid September 2019 • Photo by Daniel Ågren

Spain and the circular economy: a nation coming around or going in circles?

Though linear economic models have long been denounced by both environmentalists and economists alike, many countries are still on-track to miss the 2030 sustainable development goals set by the United Nations. According to Chema Vera, the interim executive director of Oxfam International, the problem is not just that nations have failed to make significant progress, but that ‘many governments have barely moved from the starting blocks.’ Against the backdrop of the EU’s 2021 ban on single-use plastics and China’s refusal to accept further imports of waste material, how does Spain measure up when it comes to transitioning to a circular economic model?

Government commitment to sustainable development

The new coalition government led by Pedro Sanchez could mark the beginning of a greener future for the nation. Whilst it is impossible to predict the effects the current health crisis will have on economic policy, the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) put forward a comprehensive plan for economic transition last year with a promise to ‘develop concrete and ambitious policies in favour of the circular economy.’ In 2018, Sanchez’ caretaker government also contracted research and consultancy firm Novadays to offer recommendations on switching from a linear to a circular model. Entitled España Circular 2030, the Novadays report analyses the current situation in Spain and suggests new policies in line with the EU’s 2015 Circular Economy Action Plan.

Whilst the report stresses that Spain’s ecological footprint is smaller than that of countries with similar-sized economies, it is clear that the country falls short when it comes to recycling. Spain may have placed 12th in the 2018 Environmental Performance Index, but an EU circular economy index produced by media company Politico tells a different story. The nation ranked a disappointing 19th for its municipal recycling rate, despite investing more in the circular economy than 23 other EU member states. Furthermore, the Global Footprint Network puts Spain’s per inhabitant ecological footprint at four global hectares (gha), still 2.27 gha above the maximum for a ‘sustainable’ country.

Regional initiatives

Environmental progress in Spain can seem slow or even retrograde at times — after all, it was only last May that the President of the Community of Madrid described 3am traffic jams as a charming cultural phenomenon. However, analysis of local and regional policies reveals the green movement is slowly gaining momentum with an abundance of innovative schemes at every level of government.

In the nation’s capital, the Community of Madrid has launched Madrid7R Economía Circular; a campaign designed to kick-start the economic transition by raising awareness of how to reuse and recycle consumer goods. In Catalonia, the government is supporting local businesses operating in line with the circular economy model whilst Extremadura has built its own digital platform tracking the driving forces behind the sustainable business movement. Though 73.4% of Spanish citizens admit that their environmental concerns do not motivate them to change them to change their lifestyle, it is clear that change is happening — albeit slowly.

The future of the Spanish economy

The Novadays report finishes on an optimistic note, citing Spain’s recovery from the 2008 financial crisis and the government’s ‘political drive’ as factors favourable to economic transition. Events such as COP25 and an increasing number of climate change protests have helped bring environmental

issues to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, sparking a new impetus for change. However, the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic is a major spanner in the works. Whether it is possible for Spain to rebuild its economy in a way that addresses the immediate needs of its citizens and businesses and the long-term issues of environmental degradation and climate change remains to be seen.




Writer, editor and translator with a passion for all things clean, green and sustainable.

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Martha Jackson

Martha Jackson

Writer, editor and translator with a passion for all things clean, green and sustainable.

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