Despite the critical focus of Spain’s climate policy and action understandably being directed to its two most carbon-intensive industries, energy, and transport, jointly making up about 50% of the country’s total carbon emissions, the agriculture industry has bizarrely been left largely excluded from the environmental spotlight. Yet, contributing to around 3% of GDP, the agricultural industry is also responsible for 12% of the country’s emissions, clearly depicting its greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity, and consequently should be considered of environmental importance.
According to data obtained from ClimateTrace, an independent coalition that uses remote sensing to track greenhouse gas emissions, Spain’s agriculture industry emitted 36.9mtCO2eq (million tons of CO2 equivalent) in 2021 or 0.64% of global agricultural emissions. The primary sources of agricultural emissions come from enteric fermentation, which makes up almost half of the total, emitting 17.17mtCO2eq, followed by manure management at 10.32mtCO2eq, synthetic fertilizer application at 4.60mtCO2eq and agricultural soils emissions at 3.83mtCO2eq. Methane and Nitrous oxide is the leading gases emitted by the industry, making up 60% and 73% of Spain’s total methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Corresponding to the Spanish agriculture industry’s continual expansion, emissions grew considerably between 2015 and 2021, with enteric fermentation up by 2%, manure management by 3.3%, and a massive 12.4% increase in emissions from synthetic fertilizers. Emissions from agricultural soils remained largely stagnant, ending 2021 with a 1.5% decrease compared to 2015.
The most significant proportion of the agriculture sector’s emissions comes from Spain’s sizable and expanding livestock sector, consisting of 26 million pigs, 6 million cattle, and 15 million sheep, along with producing around 1,400 tons of poultry meat annually. Pigs, cattle, and poultry have doubled in numbers since the early 1990s, while sheep numbers have halved. Widely known for its Jamón ibérico, the much larger Spanish porcine industry, including poultry and smaller ruminants, are responsible for just 11% of total agriculture emissions. On the other hand, the smaller yet methane-intensive bovine industry emits five times more than porcine, reaching 61% of the industry’s total. Methane is five times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide because cattle emit enormous amounts during digestion, and through their manure, frequently used as fertilizer.
Around 85% of Spanish beef is exported, mainly to EU member states, with the industry eyeing expansion by opening trade channels with China and Korea. Increased beef production would see proportionate rises in enteric fermentation and manure management emissions, as the bovine industry does not actively practice any effective means of methane mitigation. Altering the diet and quality of cattle feed has resulted in reducing methane emissions from cows; however, applications in Spain have remained largely negligible to non-existent. The ministry of ecological transformation has acknowledged methane as an environmentally damaging by-product of cattle; however, it has refrained from detailing any potential pathway or support to ameliorate the emissions.
Emissions from manure management, representing the second largest source in the Spanish agriculture industry, would also be expected to continue its upward trajectory under the planned expansion of beef production. Indeed, numerous technologies are readily available to mitigate methane emissions from manure, notably biogas plants, which are mentioned as a strategic objective of Spain’s National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan; however, Spain only operates around 300 plants, a far cry away from Germany’s 10,000.
Spain is also the second largest producer of fruit and vegetables in the EU, and as conventional intensive farming is practiced globally, it is highly dependent on synthetic fertilizers, where emissions from synthetic fertilizers and agricultural soils have grown by 8.2% since the 1990s. Around 30% of groundwater and 50% of surface water in already water deficit Spain have been contaminated by nitrates, indicating its ubiquity. Despite the government encouraging organic fertilizers, applications remain negligible, and sharp emission rises from this sector show no sign of abating.
The environmentally endangering activities of the Spanish agriculture industry have been naively neglected in the policy. Worryingly, in Spain’s National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan 2021-2030, the government has set the notion of vulnerability of food security under climate change as the primary challenge to overcome rather than the industry’s contribution to climate change itself. Despite acknowledging the existence of environmental impacts imposed by the industry, the government has yet to instigate proactive mitigation plans.
This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard Spain Country Manager Sean Lewis