Amid its hottest summer in recent memory, Spain has banned air conditioning set below 80 degrees Fahrenheit in public spaces—including offices, transportation hubs, shops, bars, and restaurants. Similar mandates are trickling out across Europe as part of a voluntary agreement between countries in the European Union (E.U.) to reduce dependency on energy imports from Russia and mitigate the chance of shortages this winter.
These mandates will have little, if any, impact on detaching from Russia or preventing shortages. Instead, they serve as cover for energy policy blunders that long ago transferred massive geopolitical leverage to Russia and inflated electricity costs.
A.C. restrictions are a horrible idea for many reasons, but they make even less sense in Europe's tourism capital in August. Furthermore, the pandemic hit Spain's economy particularly hard because of its reliance on tourism, which accounts for 14.6 percent of total jobs. This was the first summer without health restrictions, and tourism has rebounded impressively despite the heat waves and inflation. Halting this recovery would be devastating to the country's hospitality workers, especially as inflation wreaks havoc on prices. Given that the restrictions are set through next summer, many vacationers will be looking elsewhere in 2023.
Perhaps the most concerning thing about this ban is that climate change is being used as a justification. Spain's Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, argued, "urgent and necessary when it comes to reducing energy consumption in general."
Spain is currently in its third heat wave of the summer; its first two resulted in nearly 2000 deaths. And the A.C. restrictions were not yet in place. A 2016 University of Chicago study found that implementing A.C. in American households is the primary reason for the approximate 75 percent decline in heat-related deaths since 1960. It concluded that "the wider use of residential air conditioning should be near the top of the list of adaptation strategies" for climate change. Instead of using it as a sacrificial lamb every time demand surges, politicians should focus on incentivizing the implementation and scaling of efficient A.C. technologies.
Fortunately, the A.C. ban is already being met with resistance in Spain, where the political winds have been shifting right since the pandemic. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the conservative President of Madrid whose anti-lockdown stances propelled her to a rise in national prominence similar to that of Ron DeSantis, has fervently refused to enforce the mandate. She instead is allowing the people to make their own responsible decisions, saying:
"Before closing down, banning and switching off, why not have an adult conversation with citizens and other levels of government to ask for their cooperation on the basis of clear criteria?"
Díaz Ayuso is correct. There is nothing wrong with asking people to be mindful of their energy consumption. And due to the new price caps on electricity bills, many consumers lack the proper financial incentive to be more energy efficient. Given the amount of public support for Ukraine and the fact that the government is picking up part of the tab, why not simply ask the people for cooperation?
So, what should the Spanish government do? First, it should focus its efforts on correcting the energy policy mistakes that led to Europe's dependence on Russia. In a race to tackle climate change, progressive European leaders, influenced by environmental groups like Greenpeace, tried to transition to renewables too hastily while phasing out the production of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. They filled in the large gaps by importing Russian gas and trusting Vladimir Putin not to weaponize it. Now, the Russian president is wielding it as "energy blackmail," as E.U. President Ursula von der Leyen describes it.
So, if the goal is to get off of Russian gas, then they should start by not buying it. But since Russia's invasion of Ukraine started, Spain's liquified natural gas (LNG) imports from Russia have actually increased significantly. Spain, which didn't start buying gas from Russia until 2018, was the fourth largest importer of Russian LNG in the invasion's first 100 days. Between May and June of this year, these imports doubled. This spike in gas can partially be explained by diplomatic tensions with Algeria, which used to be its top supplier but halted gas flows because Spain reversed its neutrality in a decadeslong dispute between Algeria and Morocco. Algeria has the capacity to send a lot more gas to Europe, so Spain would be wise to patch this relationship up.
The good news is that Spain has significantly more infrastructure to receive and process natural gas compared to other European countries. It is uniquely positioned to help the continent get non-Russian gas, but it also needs to build more pipelines to transmit it. Spain must not only take full advantage of its capacity to import LNG, but it also must do everything it can, including cutting red tape, to speedily implement pipelines to break the current bottlenecks to Europe.
Spain should also abandon its misguided nuclear energy phaseout. It currently runs seven reactors that generated 22 percent of its electricity in 2020, but all are scheduled to shut down by 2035. As we have seen in U.S. states like New York and California, when nuclear plants have prematurely closed, the result is more reliance on fossil fuel imports and higher electricity prices.
Spain still has time to correct this mistake since no reactors are scheduled to close until 2027. Comparatively, Germany's last three reactors are scheduled to close at the end of this year. (In 2011, it had 16 operating reactors). But with over 80 percent of Germans now in favor of keeping the reactors running in light of Russia's invasion, politicians in Berlin are reluctantly considering a reversal of the shutdown.
Given the looming threat of Putin cutting off gas supply to Europe, Spain, which won't endure gas shortages, has the potential to minimize the impact for its more vulnerable neighbors. But if its focus continues to be on business-killing mandates like banning cold air conditioning during a record-setting hot summer, the continent should be prepared for a rough road ahead.