Concern and, yes, hope as climate meetings begin


Torres Del Paine, Chile (Photo by Joanna Liu)

Chile’s road to the presidency of December’s global climate-action talks has been undeniably bumpy.

After replacing Brazil as host of the 25th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Andean nation in October announced it could not fill that role. Domestic riots fueled by a range of grievances broke out following a rise in Santiago metro fares, leaving scores of people killed and injured. (See "Environmental defenders killed in Colombia, Brazil" —EcoAméricas, November 2019.)

Though the talks were moved to Madrid, Chile will still preside when the 12-day conference opens on Dec. 2. And it will do so with a significant climate achievement on its ledger: a new set of aggressive national goals for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. Chile’s sprint to the forefront of Latin American climate action over the past year shows how much a government can advance policy when it is motivated, says Isabel Studer, director of Strategic Alliances for Latin America at The Nature Conservancy.

The country had lagged behind other developed economies. Its initial emissions goal—a target set in 2015 that calls for a 30% cut relative to GDP by 2030—was judged “highly insufficient” by Climate Action Tracker, a research organization. But over the past year Chile has aimed higher. The government in June published a draft of the country’s first climate-change law for public comment. In October, Chile became one of the first signatories of the UN-sponsored Paris Agreement to publish a draft of its updated voluntary emissions targets, called “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs. Some 60 countries—including two dozen from Latin America and the Caribbean—have agreed to submit more ambitious goals to the UN by the end of 2020. Chile’s plan forecasts peak carbon emissions by 2027 and zero net emissions by 2050.

Meanwhile, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has pledged to phase out coal by 2040 and to close eight coal-fired power plants within five years. Chile already had set a goal of boosting renewable power’s share of electric generating capacity to 70% of the total by 2050 from 20% today, and had pledged to make its public transportation system fully electric by 2040. Says Studer: “In a year, the country has rushed to catch up.”

Not to be outshone, Costa Rica in February presented a plan to reach zero net emissions by 2050, in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The plan calls for fully electric public transit by 2050, and measures to encourage zero-emission cars and car sharing. Costa Rica, which already relies on renewable sources for at least 95% of its electric-power generation, aims to reach 100% by 2030. In addition, it has pledged to increase its forest cover to 60% of the national territory from the current 52%.

Making conference ‘blue’
In Madrid, conferees aim to build on rules set at last year’s Conference of Parties (COP) in Katowice, Poland. These rules require nations to report their emissions more often, and make it easier to track their progress in meeting their voluntary commitments. Chile says it will make this year’s conference “blue,” stressing the impact of climate change on oceans and the role of the earth’s waters as a buffer against warming. The agenda also includes rules for carbon markets, climate finance, adaptation and forest conservation.

Experts caution that goals don’t guarantee action, especially as countries face crises sparked by problems such as crime, corruption and social injustice. Policy backsliding due to political change poses a major challenge too, they assert. Analysts say Brazil, the world’s 7th largest greenhouse-gas producer, will not meet the goal it set in the Paris Agreement for a 43% emissions reduction by 2030. Hopes the country will get on track appear slim given President Jair Bolsonaro’s support for easing environmental regulations and spurring agriculture and extractive industry in the Amazon region.

A gap between pledge and performance also is apparent in Mexico, a prominent player in climate diplomacy and one of the only countries to submit a long-term climate strategy to the United Nations. The country is far from its goal of a 50% emissions reduction by 2050, says Andrés Flores, director of climate change and energy in Mexico for the World Resources Institute. Says Flores: “What good are more ambitious goals if they are not implemented?”

One key to getting governments to adopt climate friendly policies is demonstrating their economic benefit, Flores says, citing a study he coauthored this year. The study proposes a climate package that would reduce emissions in Mexico’s electricity, transport and industrial sectors by as much as 36% by 2030, and in the process save 26,000 lives and US$5 billion in public spending due to cleaner air. Thanks to the cheaper technologies emerging in recent years, “the majority of measures pay for themselves,” says Flores.

Local possibilities
Even when federal governments fail to recognize the opportunities in climate policy or are overwhelmed with domestic crises, provincial and municipal governments often see local benefits in quality of life or sustainable production, Studer says. Despite Bolsonaro’s antipathy toward rainforest conservation, for example, The Nature Conservancy is working with the government of Pará state in Brazil to promote sustainable ranching, she points out.

Indeed, given that Latin America is one of the world’s largest producers of agricultural commodities and home to a quarter of the world’s forests, it has extraordinary opportunities to cut emissions through sustainable land use, experts say. (See "As land study points one way, Brazil goes in other" —EcoAméricas, November 2019.)

“There’s a magnitude of resources that it’s the responsibility of Latin American leaders to protect and restore,” says Carolina Herrera, a climate expert at the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council. And pressure on land is growing, says Herrera: crop and livestock production are forecast to grow faster in Latin America and the Caribbean than anywhere else in the coming decade.

For The Nature Conservancy’s Studer, the challenge is to create policy frameworks that make constructive targets possible. Big pledges may generate headlines, but the meeting is about “maintaining the efforts and momentum,” she says, adding: “It’s not a sprint. Climate action is a marathon.”

- Victoria Burnett

Los Flamencos National Reserve, Chile. (Photo by Paula Porto)

Andrés Flores
Director of Climate Change and Energy
World Resources Institute
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(52 55) 3069-5742
Carolina Herrera
Project Advocate for Climate and Clean Energy
Natural Resources Defense Council
Washington, DC
Tel: (202) 289-2381
Isabel Studer
Director of Strategic Alliances
The Nature Conservancy
Mexico City, Mexico
Tel: +(52 55) 5661-1153
Documents & Resources
  1. Link to Chile’s proposed updated NDCs: link