Politicians trade blows over declining greenery in Spain’s capital ahead of local elections

The Madrid government has been accused of impairing the Spanish capital’s ability to cope with record high temperatures by felling trees and neglecting the kind of urban greenery that helps other global cities stay cool.

Ahead of local elections this month, leftwing politicians are painting Madrid’s ruling conservatives as climate change deniers whose policies are endangering the city’s future.

The stakes in the tree fight are rising as Spain emerges from the hottest April since records began and parts of the country grapple with a withering drought, which prompted the central government this week to provide emergency aid to farmers.

Mónica García, a leftwing candidate for the presidency of the Madrid region, said that the People’s party, which runs the city and the wider region, was “going against common sense” and its own citizens with its perceived disregard for nature.

“The People’s party is effectively turning Madrid into an anomaly, a bastion of the 20th century — or in some respects the 19th — that is constantly fighting against the 21st century,” García, leader of the Más Madrid party, told the Financial Times.

The heatwave last month, which also hit Portugal, Morocco and Algeria, led the Madrid regional government to announce emergency heat protocols in care homes and to let schools adjust timetables to keep children out of the fiercest sun. It also brought forward the opening of public swimming pools to this Saturday to help people cool down.

In other cities, especially in Mediterranean-type climate zones ranging from southern Europe to California to southern Australia, the cooling effects of vegetation have become an essential part of efforts to manage scorching temperatures.

Yet, according to city government data, the number of mature trees in Madrid has dropped by more than 78,000 to 322,000 since the PP mayor began his term in 2019. Some 33,000 trees were lost in a 2021 winter storm.

Más Madrid says the PP has passed up multiple chances to introduce trees or other vegetation during revamps of heavily-concreted public spaces, such as the Puerta del Sol square. Others criticise it for paving stretches of soil in city parks with gravel.

Rita Maestre, Más Madrid’s candidate to be city mayor, said: “The PP have a very old-fashioned view that worrying about the environment, worrying about the climate crisis, is a bit of a hippy thing to do.”

The PP rejects the allegations. It says it is making the fight against climate change compatible with a celebrated economic boom in Madrid, which is attracting growing numbers of foreign investors and tourists.

The party’s control of Madrid, also the seat of the central government, is uncomfortable for Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez, who is seeking to position Spain at the vanguard of efforts to combat climate change.

Polls ahead of municipal and regional elections on May 28 suggest that the right and left are in a tight race for the Madrid mayoralty. PP mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida is leading but would need the hard-right Vox party to secure a majority. A leftwing alliance including Más Madrid and Sánchez’s Socialists, however, could still beat him.

The PP’s stance on climate change is ambiguous. Official party policy is that climate change is real, but Martínez-Almeida accused Más Madrid of “unjustified scaremongering” over last month’s record temperatures.

One of his signature initiatives was loosening the rules for a low-emissions zone for cars created by the previous leftwing city government, although he abandoned an attempt to scrap it entirely.

Trees in Plaza España, central Madrid © Bloomberg

A spokesman for the mayor blamed the felling of 1,500 trees on railway work overseen by the Socialist-led central government and said the previous city administration, led by a forebear of Más Madrid, cut down even more trees from 2015-19.

Martínez-Almeida’s government had increased the budget for green zones and planted more than 210,000 young trees, the spokesman said, although scientists stress that it can take years or decades for them to reach a size where they contribute to cooling. Madrid is also included in the UN’s Tree Cities of the World programme, which recognises efforts to care for trees.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the PP leader of the wider Madrid region, has said that climate change has happened “for as long as the earth has existed” and also described it as a “big scam” propagated by the left.

In the face of protests in February her administration paused, but has not cancelled, plans to cut down nearly 250 trees, many more than 50 years old, to make way for a new subway station in the Madrid Río park. Ayuso, seen as a future candidate for prime minister, is on course to be reelected this month.

Tamara Iungman, researcher at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, said trees could play a big role in reducing the intensity of urban heat islands, which result from the abundance of heat-retaining materials such as concrete and asphalt.

Not only do trees provide shade, but through transpiration they act as natural air conditioners that take in warm air and expel cooler air.

In a Lancet study of 93 cities, Iungman and others estimated that 40 per cent of deaths attributed to urban heat islands could be avoided by increasing tree cover in cities to 30 per cent, measured at a height of two metres above ground.

Only Oslo and Berlin already have such extensive tree coverage. Madrid’s figure is 9 per cent, but that is higher than some other Spanish cities.

Maestre, the mayoral challenger, said the average temperature in Madrid had risen by 1.5C in the past decade. “Of course there is a problem with the heat in Madrid. There used to be a couple of difficult weeks in the summer, but now it starts in April and lasts until September,” she said.

“The city is neither prepared for it, nor putting in place the necessary measures to stop it getting worse.”

Data visualisation by Ella Hollowood