The Spanish region of Galicia is known for its lush, green landscapes and forests. And the region is embracing its inherent green abundance to become a climate action leader in Spain. It has high climate ambitions, aligned with the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality target, exceeding national climate ambition.
As a key part of this ambition, the regional government understood that success was fully dependant of citizen involvement, through the closest level of governance: local authorities. The regional government found that the Covenant of Mayors provides a common language – a standardised way of working and measuring outcome – that could help them get Galician municipalities of all sizes on board. Accordingly, a regional Covenant office for coordination was set up in 2019 to engage, convince and guide municipalities to commit to EU’s targets and to develop their own action plans. As a result, Covenant signatories in Galicia have increased tenfold in just four years, now encompassing 91% of all the region’s municipalities.
We talked to María Sagrario Pérez Castellanos, General Director of environmental quality, sustainability, and climate change of the regional government of Galicia. She gave us clearer insights into Galicia’s ambitions and approach.
To begin with, why is it so important for regional and local governments to work together on energy and climate in Galicia?
If we don't manage to involve every individual, every citizen, it will be impossible [to reach energy and climate targets]. And the closest government to citizens is the local government. However, the local government should perceive that the proposed solutions are relevant to them and that what needs to be done is realistically achievable.
It's the regional government’s responsibility, first of all, to act as a catalyst for European initiatives, then to explain the rationale behind decisions, and lastly, to translate them into tangible actions and outcomes for local authorities: savings in their municipal accounts, savings for citizens, improvements in services as a result of these savings, expenses that can be reduced... Local governments must be able to see concretely what they can do.
We had municipal elections recently, and in each of the electoral programmes, regardless of the party, they were addressing climate issues. And that’s fundamental. At least in Galicia, we have achieved that objective: to get them all involved. They feel that it’s their issue to tackle, not something that "the wise men of the world will solve". And it’s clear that this involves you: in every behaviour, from when you buy a product, to the waste you generate, when you turn the lights on or off, when you are using renewable energy sources... It involves you.
How have you used the Covenant of Mayors to reinforce this climate action?
From the beginning, we knew we had to find some common code or language. And that is what the Covenant of Mayors provides us with. First, in what is said at the European level. That always helps. Something that is promoted by the European Commission, makes them feel that “they are taking care of us”. And then, it provides us with simple language, that can be directly applied and isn’t too technical. The Covenant of Mayors’ language is relatable for local governments: it tells you where you have excessive water consumption, where you have excessive electricity consumption, where you can save in your heating system, how you can provide better comfort in public buildings... They see that through the tools provided by the Covenant of Mayors, it's easy and feasible to do all this.
So, as a result, it has been easy to engage the mayors. And this is the key. Often local elected officials are just citizens like the others – it's not necessarily someone with special training. And the Covenant of Mayors is able to convince them with language that speaks to them and empowers them to say “well, I can do this”. It doesn’t seem too far away or too difficult.
Since you opened your regional coordination office, how many municipalities have joined the Covenant of Mayors?
We now have 285 municipalities. When we started in 2019, there were 22 that had already somehow joined on their own. Some of them were redirected through the coordination centre, but 268 have joined as a result.
And last year, the new criterion of energy poverty was included. At regional level, we have a very ambitious plan to be able to detect it with artificial intelligence, but this is all based on all the information we have collected through the plans of the municipalities, detecting where there may be pockets of people who are more vulnerable - especially in large cities or large towns.
And are many municipalities still in the process of joining the Covenant of Mayors?
Yes, in fact, we are going to bring out a regional climate law. And in this climate law, large municipalities, from 20,000 inhabitants upwards – there are 33 in our region – are going to be obliged to have sustainable energy and climate action plan. If they want to do so via the Covenant of Mayors, they are obviously welcome to, and we will provide the support. And if not, they can do it on their own, but they will have to report to us on what they have done and what they are planning to do.
The aim is that by 2030, everyone must have a plan. In fact, as a region we have the 2050 climate neutrality target, over and above the national commitment. At national level, we all have our piece of effort. And in 2021, we were already 2 points above the level of Spain, which allows us to have a margin to think of how we can turn this into an economic opportunity.
One of the great difficulties with implementing the plans and developing local capacity, especially in small municipalities. How does the region of Galicia help and support the development of this capacity?
From the office, there have been two levels of assistance. Those who wanted to have a consultancy contract and can afford it, are welcome to do so. Otherwise, the regional coordination office offers assistance, especially to small teams from smaller municipalities.
But it’s true that the difficulty lies in setting up permanent teams. In the big cities, this isn’t so much of a problem and there are dedicated environmental departments dealing with climate issues. And it’s crucial to create a stable team that knows, that can evolve, that can work permanently. This also helps to take the work out of the political sphere. Because we must transcend politics. No matter the political colour, it’s a job that must be done, just like education and health. We hope, with the funds that we have until 2029, to help develop that capacity.
What financial frameworks are you putting in place at regional level to help municipalities implement their action plans?
We are now with a new operational programme – since 2021 when the previous one ended – which proposes a new office called the "Resilient Galicia Office". This office is going to coordinate two actions: one is the alliance with companies and the other is continuing with the Covenant of Mayors’ pact, extending it to and convincing those that are missing. And between the two, we are trying to find a bridge to channel the money that companies will allocate to environmental-related actions to fund actions from the municipalities’ plans.
This is the challenge ahead of us, that we are going to set for the Resilient Galicia Office: to converge these two initiatives that are currently running in parallel, as a way of enabling meaningful local action. Beyond planting trees or collecting plastic on a beach, we need municipalities to have a stable structure that allows them to provide environmental equity for every citizen, no matter where they live.
How are you trying to connect all this work to Spain's National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP)?
We take it into account, first because it's the basis for us. Secondly, because it comes from the European Commission. And we are aligned with the 'Fit for 55' objective, to achieve a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030, not because we were asked to, but because we want to. It’s voluntary.
And we want this to serve as an economic driver for us as well. We are able to contribute to national efforts more than they can, and we should be compensated for this. We can sell our absorption capacity to [the national government]. If in exchange, they provide our population with a series of services, because of the extreme difficulties that our population has geographically and structurally. The only province with negative growth in Spain is one of our four provinces, where more people die than are born. But then, Ourense province is also one of the areas with the highest amount of forests and protected natural areas of the country. People leave the countryside, but then who is going to maintain all this?
In your opinion, what do you think are the conditions for good cooperation between the local and regional level?
Our autonomy is very intense. But on top of that, we have “capillarised” competences. For example, municipalities have a very high level of competence. Which also means a high level of responsibility. But if you don't provide them with the means or capacity... What Galicia understood early on is that if we want all of Galicia to benefit from all this, we need to count on the local entities. And we acknowledged that we couldn’t just decide everything from the regional level if we wanted to get everyone involved. Because otherwise, we are going to fail, and we are not going to achieve the objectives set by the European Union.
- Publication date
- 19 December 2023