The Spanish Minister With Big Ambitions for Combating Climate Change

MADRID, SPAIN - JUNE 08: Spanish minister of energy and climate change Teresa Ribera arrives to Pedro Sanchez's first cabinet meeting at the Moncloa Palace on June 8, 2018 in Madrid, Spain. Spain's new government cabinet has the highest number of female ministers in the country's history with 11 women and only 6 men. Socialist leader and Spain's new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez won a no-confidence motion against ousted prime minister Mariano Rajoy. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

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Why you should care

Because every crisis is an opportunity, especially when you are an environment minister concerned with climate change.

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As usual these days, Greta Thunberg was the face and the focus of the story. When the United Nations COP25 climate summit was moved from Chile to Spain with just a few weeks to go because of deadly civil unrest, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, who does not fly because of carbon emissions, had to make a last-minute detour. After traveling halfway to Chile by means of a train, boat and electric car, cameras caught Thunberg hitching a ride back to Europe aboard a catamaran.

But there was another influential woman who was also scrambling to prepare for the summit, which started on Monday in Madrid and brings together more than 25,000 representatives from around 200 countries in an attempt to reach agreements to keep the effects of global warming within manageable limits. Sure, the COP25 summit represents an organizational challenge for Spain’s Environment Minister Teresa Ribera, but the last-minute detour also holds a huge opportunity for the environmentalist-turned-bureaucrat who has already helped chart a more sustainable path to the future for her country.

Spain is back and ready to lead climate action in the European Union.

Teresa Ribera

On the opening day of the summit on Monday, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez promised that his country would “be the capital of the fight against climate change and for a real commitment.” The remarks represent a political about-face for a country that has been dragging its feet on climate-friendly policies for years. Sworn in last year with a narrow majority, one of the first actions of the new Socialist Party prime minister was to create the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and, for the first time in history, place a woman in charge of the nation’s energy policy and fledgling climate change agenda. 

Ribera, a former law professor and Spanish secretary of state for environment, has been engaged in global negotiations on climate change for nearly two decades, including a stint as the head of the Paris-based Institute of Sustainable Development and International Relations. Born in Madrid, Ribera, 50, who could not immediately be reached for comment, first grew interested in the geopolitics of climate change around COP5 (in Bonn, Germany, in 1999). “There was something that was going on,” she recently told Carbon Brief. “It seemed to be interesting, so appealing for political engagement, but things didn’t look like [they were] working as they should.”

And since assuming her post last year, Ribera is doing her best to ensure that efforts to address climate change work more as they should in a nation that is one of the most at risk in Europe, with one 2016 report predicting that southern Spain would become a desert if global temperatures rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Ribera has outlined a plan in which Spain will aim for carbon neutrality by 2050, and announced that the government would install between 6,000 and 7,000 megawatts of renewable power every year for the next decade. She also spearheaded an agreement with the mining unions that will close most of the nation’s coal mines while investing over 200 million euro ($221 million) into mining regions over the next decade, and scrapped the country’s so-called “sun tax” on solar power, which she dismissed as a “great absurdity.” She caused a political earthquake by telling Parliament last year that diesel “has its days numbered,” before backtracking a bit.

While Ribera claims that “Spain is back and ready to lead climate action in the European Union,” she has also been critical of less-ambitious countries like the United States. Days before the COP25 summit, she lambasted the “absolutely irresponsible attitude” of President Donald Trump’s administration toward climate change during an interview with Spanish public television. But Ribera’s own ambitious green initiatives may be undermined by domestic political forces. Sánchez’s Socialist Party holds just over a quarter of the seats in the country’s Parliament after a general election last month and depends on a coalition government to rule. Spain’s powerful car industry, second only to Germany’s in Europe, has also made climate action difficult politically.

And yet with a strengthening global youth climate movement responding to the unavoidable evidence of a climate crisis, hopes are high heading into COP25 for tangible political movement. It’s the type of event that usually takes up to a year to organize, not weeks, and requires coordination among multiple parties, including the United Nations and the previous host, Chile, which is still chairing the proceedings. If anything, however, the rapid pace at which Ribera and her country have put together the summit demonstrates they are capable of at least two of the most important skills needed for meaningful climate reform: moving quickly and coordinating with diverse parties and interests. 

“It will be a privilege to back and facilitate global action on climate,” Ribera recently tweeted. “Progressive and constructive multilateralism is the best answer to global challenges.”

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