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EU recovery fund gives Spain ‘once in a lifetime’ chance to fight climate change
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EU recovery fund gives Spain ‘once in a lifetime’ chance to fight climate change

EU recovery fund gives Spain ‘once in a lifetime’ chance to fight climate change


Could the coronavirus crisis be a catalyst for saving the planet? Teresa Ribera, Spain’s environment supremo, is betting Europe’s multibillion-euro response to the pandemic will make a decisive difference to the EU’s battle against climate change.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Ribera, a deputy prime minister in the leftwing government, set out the country’s plans to tap into the bloc’s €800bn coronavirus recovery fund. She also acknowledged the challenges of skill shortages, inflation, and the need to have private funds and support from the public.

“It is the kind of responsibility you have once in a lifetime, the sort of thing that probably no one imagined,” said Ribera, the principal author of Spain’s energy and climate plan. “The total €140bn in recovery fund grants and loans is equivalent to all the structural funds Spain has received since it joined the EU; it is a spectacular amount.”

The EU demands that countries spend at most 37% of recovery funds for climate action. Spain, the fund’s second-biggest beneficiary after Italy and the first country to have its plans Brussels approved, is targeting 40%. Its status as one of the EU members most at peril from climate change — because of problems such as desertification, water shortages and intense heat — makes the issue still more important.

Some of the biggest ticket items in Spain’s recovery plan — €6.5bn for electric vehicles and public transport, €7bn for Energy efficiency in buildings, and €6.9bn to make the country a renewable energy hub and develop “green hydrogen” — will play vital roles in determining whether it meets its goals to reduce carbon emissions by 2030.

Spain’s opposition People’s party has railed against the plans for the EU funds, taking legal action after accusing the government of favouring Socialist-controlled regions, and highlighting delays.

Ribera has dismissed such criticism, arguing that the funds are subject to heightened scrutiny by Brussels and insisting that all the country’s regions will benefit.

She said that the workforce must be able to learn new skills in order to maximize the effectiveness of the resources.

“Do we have enough workers to absorb all the money for the rehabilitation of buildings?” she asked. “Well, obviously, they are not the construction workers of 20 years ago, who probably were not very trained. We now have fewer registered builders than in 1999. So professional training is a focus.”

She added that she anticipated “episodes of inflation”.

“Suddenly, the whole world decides that everything has to be digital, renewable and green: this creates tensions in the supply chain and generates inflation,” she pointed out.

There are also questions as to whether the plans are ambitious enough in order to make the necessary changes.

The shift to electric vehicles, for example, is vital for Spain, which has Europe’s second-biggest car industryIt hopes to counter competition from China by manufacturing low cost electric vehicles by 2025.

Ribera acknowledged the country’s charging infrastructure was behind its EU peers. “It is true we have begun late, but we will make up for that very quickly,” she said.

Under the recovery plan, the government plans to increase the number of chargers from about 13,000 last year to 100,000 by 2023 — when 250,000 electric vehicles should be on the roads.

But Spain’s car manufacturers association wants a more sustained push — to more than 300,000 chargers by 2030 — and warns that many of those in place at present are not powerful enough to charge cars quickly.

Ribera believes that the private sector will invest between four and five times the amount of EU grants. Whether such a scale of resources — up to €350bn given the total grants of €70bn — will be mobilised is one of the biggest questions surrounding the EU funds.

The minister also believes that public opinion will play an important role. With the rise in gas prices pushing Spanish electricity bills higher, Madrid has been calling on the EU to revise its pricing rules so consumers will be charged less — a measure the European Commission is now contemplating, at least on a temporary basis.

Ribera warned that high prices could lead to a slowdown in the energy transition by increasing costs and alienating the population.

“A transformation like we are living through always needs social support,” she said. “Citizens have to think there is something positive in it for them . . . that it is not an agenda for big companies.”

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