Barcelona Declares Climate Emergency, Vows To Halve Emissions By 2030

Spain's second-largest city is becoming a model for sustainable urban planning.

BARCELONA ― The city government here declared a climate emergency and vowed to spend $628 million over the next five years to dramatically slash its output of planet-heating emissions and fortify this sun-soaked Mediterranean metropolis for the warming that’s already unavoidable.

Lawmakers in Spain’s second-largest city on Wednesday unveiled a sweeping policy package that includes 103 measures ranging from bans on polluting vehicles in newly demarcated “low-emissions zones” to the creation of more parks to phasing out single-use plastics.

The changes are projected to help halve the city’s emissions by 2030. That target is in line with what United Nations scientists say is required globally to keep warming in the relatively safe range of 1.5 degrees Celsius, roughly half a degree hotter than average temperatures today.

“This is not a drill, the house is on fire,” Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau said at a press conference, according to a translation of the speech published in El País, the country’s newspaper of record.

The announcement comes months after a European Union report found that Spain’s nationwide emissions increased 17.9% during a 27-year period in which greenhouse gas outputs fell 23.5% across the continent.

The backslide, coupled with a record-breaking heatwave this summer, helped spur the ruling Socialist Party to become the first national government in the developed world to endorse the Green New Deal framework for lowering emissions. Dubbing its program “el New Deal Verde,” the center-left Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez narrowly won reelection last fall and last week swore in a new cabinet formed in coalition with the anti-austerity party Podemos.

Yet domestic tensions and spending restrictions from the EU threatened to stunt this new left-wing government’s loftier climate ambitions.

The Catalonian independence flag flutters on balconies across Barcelona, the capital of the autonomous region where the movement to fully separate from Spain flourishes. The nationalist fervor has inflamed tensions with the far-right Vox party, which surged to third place in Spain’s parliament in November’s elections in part due to its hard-line stance against independence. On Sunday, Vox, which rejects climate science outright, led rallies of more than 100,000 protestors, who called Sánchez a “traitor” to the nation.

Making it even harder to implement a sweeping Green New Deal plan is Spain’s fragile economy and steep national debt, which means that it can’t borrow money for large-scale climate infrastructure projects without running afoul of EU rules on deficit spending.

That hasn’t tempered Barcelona’s own urban planning goals. Since 2014, the city has been working on rezoning large swaths of its center as “superblocks,” where all but necessary automobiles are barred from driving. The idea ― which the writer Dave Roberts called a “radical plan to take back the streets from cars” in a must-read series on Barcelona’s urban planning strategy ― could now serve as a model for other cities choked by traffic and the emissions spewed by stalled vehicles.

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