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Spain and the environment: What’s the carbon footprint of a Camino pilgrim?

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Some rooftop solar panels, rarely seen on the Camino

Since Spain gets so much sun, I expected to see many solar panels while on the 800-kilometre Camino route. Surprisingly, after more than three weeks of walking, the first one I came across was on the roof of a home outside San Martin del Camino. After that, despite walking hundreds of kilometres, I saw only a small handful.

When I mentioned their scarcity to a middle-aged Spanish taxi driver, he said that they were visible in many other places in the country. He didn’t like them because he thought they looked “unaesthetic” and suggested that was why they weren’t situated on the Camino: they were unsightly blemishes on this classic path. His reaction left me stunned—save appearances, not the planet?

It sounds like the south of Spain is the place to see many solar panels. I found out that Solucar, just outside Seville, is Europe’s biggest solar plant.

Unlike traditional solar panels, this complex does not use photovoltaic cells. Instead, long rows of almost 2,000 huge glass mirrors (heliostats) spread across 1,000 hectares to focus solar radiation. This, in turn, produces intense heat that drives steam turbines. This one location supplies clean electricity to about 94,000 households, according to its operating company Abengoa Solar.

As an advocate of alternative energy, I was happy to learn that Spain has 57,900 solar-powered plants; these provide 4.3 per cent of the country’s electricity. Although this obviously doesn’t solve all of Spain’s power needs, it’s heartening progress compared to Canada’s long-term, embedded dependence on fossil fuels and Alberta’s Tar Sands.

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A row of wind turbines is barely perceptible on the farthest hilltop
in this photo, creating three levels of visual barriers.

Along the Camino route, wind farms are the most obvious sign of alternative power sources. At times, these tall white turbines are only a few metres off the path, where you can hear them roar and whir as you walk past. But in most places, they stretch across the horizon like a row of silent angels.

Last year, wind power was Spain’s top source of electricity, producing more than 20 per cent of its energy needs. I can attest to the ferocity of the wind in that nation; many times on the Camino, even in the lowlands, I walked with my windbreaker zipped up to the top, shielding my face with a bent head. Yet I find forceful winds energizing (except when kayaking); they serve as a bold, tactile reminder of nature’s presence.

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Spanish schoolchildren listen as their teacher
demonstrates where to put a plastic bag for recycling.

In general, there was less litter on the Camino than I had expected; I understand that in more remote areas, a network of volunteers picks it up periodically. Yet it surprised me that some pilgrims still brazenly threw empty plastic water bottles or lunch remains in a ditch or on the path.

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One of the many clean creeks along the Camino route

In the first few days on the Camino, I found a regular trail of used kleenexes discarded on the ground ahead of me. I couldn’t nail down the culprit, but guessed that it was one of a small cluster of Japanese women in their sixties. Such acts still amaze me as an overt sign of our sense of disconnection from the earth.

In some Spanish restaurants and cafés, I was surprised to see small piles of paper trash littering the floor below a counter. No one seemed concerned about them. When I asked Michael, my Cuban-American pilgrim friend, about this, he said that it was a symbol of customer satisfaction and good business. The owners left this garbage for many hours or a few days as if to advertise how well they were doing.

Some pilgrims left their abandoned boots or items of clothing along the route, often on top of a stone waymarker. In some cases, these could help out another pilgrim as an anonymous gift, yet I still felt that this detritus tarnished the journey. I could fully understand someone’s desire to no longer carry something heavy and unwanted, but couldn’t they at least wait until finding an albergue or a garbage can?

Since the Camino is such a high-profile tourist destination, my guess is that Spain tries to maintain it as a showcase to the world. Therefore, you don’t see oil slicks in rivers or lakes or overt signs of water pollution. Yet irrigation from Spain’s many vineyards is reducing its water tables. And I can only imagine what impact the run-off from fertilizers is having on rivers and creeks.

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A clearcut directly on the Camino route, about four days’ walk before Santiago.

I did pass several clearcuts immediately along the route, which brought unwanted reminders of their common appearance in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. Yet I did not get a sense of massive deforestation in northern Spain, although the country’s forests overall have been called some of the world’s most endangered. Thankfully, Spain is part of the Iberian Forest and Trade Network, a World Wildlife Fund initiative to stop illegal logging and promote conservation.

After arriving in Santiago, my final destination, and heading by bus to the fishing village of Finisterre, I marveled at my first glimpse of the ocean and coast on that trip. After weeks of slogging on the walk, the sparkling turquoise and teal waters, white sand beaches, and palm trees looked tropically ideal. Some areas reminded me of West Vancouver and I felt homesick for the Pacific Northwest.

However, like at home, I knew what environmental damage such pristine waters can hide. Spain is among the world’s top dozen nations responsible for polluting oceans with fishing-related plastic, according Plastic Pollution: An Ocean Emergency, written by representatives from University of B.C.’s Fisheries Centre.

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A beach view en route to Finisterre

But as mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I was not in Spain as a researcher or activist. Soothed by the ocean breeze, gleaming water, and the thought of fresh seafood, I was happily content to rest my weary limbs, chat with fishermen mending their nets, and indulge in the same kind of coastal ambiance that endears me to my home.

Since then, I have been curious to contemplate: What’s the carbon footprint of your average Camino pilgrim? Excluding air travel, if you factor in methane emissions (smile) and limited travel by internal combustion engine, the impact is probably relatively low.

Click here to read more about solar power in Spain. Canada’s energy writer Andrew Nikiforuk shares his perspective in a May 3, 2013 article Solar Dreams, Spanish Realities (originally published in Vancouver, BC’s The Tyee.)

Click here to read more details about the environment of Spain, from its wildlife habitat to pollution record.

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May 20, 2014 at 1:05 pm Comments (0)