Climate change is a frequent topic in political debates, with liberals typically more environmentally concerned than conservatives. However, do liberal political parties adapt their environmental policies to maximize their popularity, sometimes with a position that can negatively impact global warming?
Pushing renewable energy first and then supporting the coal industry, the PSOE, – Spanish biggest left-wing political party – has used climate change to maximize voter support, not necessarily in the best interest of the environment.
During the 2004 Presidential Election campaign, PSOE’s central claim regarding energy policy was to promote renewable energies. This attracted many “green” votes and Zapatero won the Election. In 2007, Zapatero approved new incentives to subsidize the installation of new renewable capacity, causing a boom in wind and solar.
Source: Own elaboration based on data from IDAE
Increasing renewable energies’ penetration had two effects:
- Renewable energies substituted other generation sources, such as coal-based thermoelectric generation. Since the electricity demand for the 2007 to 2011 period remained stable, some suppliers had to reduce their generation weight.
Source: Own elaboration based on data from REE
Thermoelectric plants burned coal to generate electricity. This coal was mainly extracted from mines located in the north of Spain, where PSOE had a strong basis of voters’ support.
When the introduction of renewable energies started to reduce the need of thermoelectric generation (from 26% to 7% of electricity demand in just three years), the mining companies tried to export the Spanish coal, but it was less competitive than international standards due to its high price (despite EU subsidies to national coal) and higher contamination standards (containing 1-5% of sulfur vs 0.5% standard).
As a consequence, mines reduced their extracting operations and unemployment of miners rose. Strong lobbying from the mining sector and combative miners’ protests burst.
- Promoting the installation of renewable energies increased public debt, since electricity tariffs paid by end consumers did not cover the subsidies paid to renewable generators.
Source: Own elaboration based on data from Bankinter
In 2010 the Spanish Government was struggling due to the financial and sovereign debt crisis. Employment and economic viability were now the main concerns of the population.
In this context, PSOE reconsidered its position towards climate change and adapted to the new situation. The party believed that the economic and political cost of pushing renewable energy further was not worth it.
- Zapatero decided to cut subsidies by 30% and 10% to solar and wind with the objective of mitigating the deficit increase.
- In parallel, Zapatero set aside his fight against global warming to support the environmentally unfriendly coal industry. The Government passed the “Coal Act” which established an obligatory quota for coal-based power generation of up to 15% of electricity demand while approving subsidies to plants buying domestic coal. The objective of this action was to content the mining industry and preserve jobs. PSOE still maintains this position today.
This political change had an important impact in climate change: it reversed the environmental efficiency gains accumulated over the past several years, altering Spain’s electricity generation mix and increasing CO2 emissions by 35% in 2011 from the previous year.
Source: Red Eléctrica Española
This case presents a clear example of the trade-offs politicians confront when addressing climate change: what prevails, current employment and economic viability or future environmental sustainability? What is the social cost of fighting climate change and how many unemployed families are worth one ton of CO2 saved?
In my opinion, political parties should stay true to their fight against climate change, even when temporary side effects may reduce the popularity of their longer-term goals. Going forward PSOE could follow these steps to adapt its energy policy and fight climate change more effectively:
- Promote labor reconversion of mining areas
- Promote the conversion of coal-fired power plants into combined-cycle gas power plants
- Define an economically sustainable subsidy-system to promote renewable energies again
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 Riley E. Dunlap, Aaron M. McCright & Jerrod H. Yarosh, “The Political Divide on Climate Change: Partisan Polarization Widens in the U.S.”, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, August 25, 2016
 Partido Socialista Obrero Español has tradionally been the biggest left-wing party in Spain’s democracy
 PSOE’s Policitical Program for the 2004 Presidential Elections, p. 113
 José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was President of Spain from 2004 to 2011 as the national leader of the PSOE, after winning the 2004 and 2008 Presidential Elections
 IDAE, Instituto para la Diversificación y el Ahorro de Energético, Informe Estadístico de Energías Renovables, http://informeestadistico.idae.es/t10.htm (accessed October 3, 2016)
 Source: Red Eléctrica Española, Balance Eléctrico Anual Nacional, 2007-2013
 Red Eléctrica Española, El sistema eléctrico español en 2010 [The Spanish electricity system in 2010], 2011
 Bankinter, La CNMC acaba de publicar un informe donde repasa la evolución del déficit de tarifa, March 2016
 Royal Decree-Law 14/2010, of December 23, 2010, by which urgent measures to correct the electricity tariff déficit are approved
 Royal Decree 134/2010, of February 12, 2010, and subsequent Royal Decree 1221/2010, of October 1, 2010
 La Voz de Asturias, El PSOE compromete en Madrid su acción parlamentaria en defensa del carbón, September 21, 2016 http://www.lavozdeasturias.es/noticia/economia/2016/09/21/sind/00031474471029930985144.htm, (accessed on October 3, 2016)
 Comisión Nacional de la Energía, Informe Anual de Supervisión del Mercado Eléctrico 2011 [Annual Report on Electricity Market 2011], 2012
 Amaranta Herrero & Louis Lemkow, Environmentally Blind Discourses on Coal Extraction and the Idealization of the Miner in Spain, Capitalism Nature Socialism, July 24, 2015, p. 215-235