Climate Change Adaptation in Spain: When a Plan is not Enough

Adaptating for the Future
6 min readMar 9, 2021

The importance of climate change adaptation

The importance of adapting societies to the threats of climate change has been widely recognised by many countries and international organisations, such as the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). We have reached a point in which reducing carbon emissions is no longer enough to reduce the effects of climate change. Hence, to avoid its threats and uncertainties, adaptation is a necessary, winning and vital approach to be taken.

“We have reached a point in which reducing carbon emissions is no longer enough to reduce the effects of climate change.

For those who are not familiar with the concept, climate change adaptation is the process of adjustment to the actual or expected climate and hazards, seeking to reduce the negative impacts or exploit beneficial opportunities. By not adapting to climate change, responsible for increasing the frequency and intensity of natural hazards, governments and societies could become vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change, thus exposing the people to higher risks. This combination of factors results in an increased probability to affect negatively sustainable and inclusive development.

The image below shows an example of the consequences of not adapting, during the floods that took place in 2019, in Alicante (Spain).

The image shows hundreds of cars pilled up covered with water due to the floods in 2019
Source: El Mundo, “La Dana devastates the Southeast: hundreds of evacuees, destruction and floods in Murcia, Valencia and Alicante”, September 2019. Available from:

Floods as the most damaging hazard in Spain

In the concrete case of Spain, floods have been and are the natural hazards that have caused more economic and life losses. To better understand the economic impacts of such hazard, the graph below shows the damages in million USD from 1970 to 2019 in Spain. In the figure, two major flood events stand out: the 1983 floods, which caused a total estimated damage of 3,900 million USD and affecting more than half-million civilians in the Basque Country region (Northern Spain) and the 2019 floods, with 2,558 million USD of damages, affecting several communities across North-East side of the country.

Bubble graph with damages for each of the floods that happened in Spain from 1970 until 2019
Note: Self-produced based on the EM-DAT database

Data on damages provides a good snapshot of a country’s exposure to climate risks. With increasing temperatures caused by climate change and exacerbated by human activity, the probability and intensity of meteorological hazards, like droughts and storms, will likely augment. This situation translates to even larger damages, which is not especially good for Spain, one of the most socio-economically affected countries in Europe due to COVID-19.

“One of the most damaging flood event happened recently and more are expected to come if adaptation is left unaddressed.

Flood adaptation and climate change adaptation plans

To address climate change impacts and in line with the international agreements signed, Spain developed its first National Climate Change Adaptation Plan, from 2006 to 2020, and adopted, based on lessons learned from the previous plan, the second plan from 2021 to 2030. The national plan provides a useful tool to know the objectives, criteria, scope of work and action lines to foment climate change adaptation and resilience.

The involvement of provincial and municipal decision makers in climate change adaptation is as essential as national stakeholders. However, according to the last report on local policies for the fight against climate change[i] (2019), only 28.9% of the municipal and provincial governments in Spain (which account for around 62% of the country’s population) committed to sustainability have concrete climate change adaptation plans. Furthermore, from this percentage, only 15% participated in the last report, showing low-priority among the members who supposedly prioritise sustainability and climate change.

“There is low awareness of climate change adaptation at lower levels of decision making.

Not only there is low (or lower) prioritisation in adapting to climate change by municipalities, but none of the existing climate change adaptation projects developed in Spain to date target flooding and sea-level rise.[ii]

Main flaws from the adaptation plans

The lack of interest in climate change adaptation can be explained by a general lack of awareness between the different sectors of society and the weaknesses from the first plan of climate adaptation. According to the evaluation report of the first adaptation plan[iii], one of the significant flaws identified is the fact that the plan did not potentiate the development of specific strategies by sector, with easy and precise indicators to communicate, and lack of indicators to evaluate the national adaptation level.

The lines of action of the second Climate Change Adaptation Plan contain essential elements for informed-based decision making, such as research on climate change future impacts on ecosystems, climate services for urban planning; and to advance climate change adaptation in the country, such as through the inclusion of climate change adaptation and the coordination of current related policies (e.g., desertification and forest fires). Despite such developments, some of the indicators to evaluate the achievement of the national plan are quite vague and, most of them, not measurable.

As an example, in the line of action 3, about water and hydric resources, one of the indicators of action 3.3 Contingent management of drought risks integrated into planning hydrological and water management, states: ‘Exploitation rates are reduced in watersheds with excessive values’. The question here is: Until what rate, on average, is to be reduced, and when should this be completed?

“The Second Climate Change Adaptation Plan needs to be more transparent, with more concrete and measurable indicators.

In fact, the same plan states that “the indicators are provisional and constitute a first step for creating a set of indicators that will be improved when more knowledge is created”. This may be the reason why the indicators are not entirely accurate and not measurable yet. In any case, developing accurate and quantifiable indicators with clear benchmarks should be a priority for the working groups behind each of the lines of action, since it is of their interest and of the society’s to be able to track the evolution of adaptation efforts. At the same time, this allows to identify gaps and prioritise actions.

An additional remark is related to finance, where each of the lines of action does not specify the total amount of budget allocated, nor by sectors. Cost estimations are also missing for each of the lines of action. While these estimations may be hard to make, they could have been presented in ranges, since it allows key stakeholders to have more accurate expectations on what can actually be done. Furthermore, this additional information increases transparency since it would be openly available to the rest of the population.


As of today, climate change adaptation in Spain based on the simple assessment performed is not enough. Spain is not ready for future hazards and, hence, for the impacts of climate change. As observed in the second National Climate Change Adaptation Plan, it seems like Spain is still at the initial stages of climate change adaptation. The country still lacks, among many other aspects, measurable indicators, deadlines of accomplishment, specificities about budget allocations and, most importantly, an aware society of the Climate Change Adaptation Plan and its increasing importance.

Although the second plan provides a valuable document to enhance adaptation in Spain, the country has still a long way to take adaptation with urgency.


I would like to thank Santiago Lema Burgos for his substantive editions.

Article also available in Spanish at:


[i] Sixth Report about local policies that target the fight against climate change (Sexto Informe Sobre Políticas Locales De Lucha Contra El Cambio Climático), 2019. Available at:

[ii] Climate Change Adaptation Platform in Spain (Plataforma sobre Adaptación al Cambio Climático en España). Available at:

[iii] Government of Spain, National Climate Change Adaptation Plan: Ratings and proposals from stakeholders and sectors (Plan Nacional de Adaptación al Cambio Climático: Valoraciones y propuestas de agentes y sectores interesados), March 2019. Available at:



Adaptating for the Future

My name is Cristina Bernal Aparicio and I write to raise awareness and share knowledge on climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction.