Climate News

Chile’s Ramps Up Climate Ambition

Photo: Cissa Ferreira

Chile released its updated climate pledge on April 9, charting a path to greenhouse gas neutrality and climate ambition at a time when urgent action is needed. By setting an early peak emissions target and proposing a date for greenhouse neutrality, Chile’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) represents a major upgrade from the nation’s previous commitments

Chile, which still holds the COP Presidency, is one of the first nations to formally submit its revised NDC. By doing so, it has helped set the stage for what is hoped to be a landmark year in raising global climate ambition. Other nations such as Japan and Singapore have released their updated NDCs that fall far short of the modest goals set forth in the Paris Agreement. 

While Chile’s revised NDC is much more compatible with the Paris Agreement than its original submission, it remains to be seen how the proposed phaseout of coal will actually be implemented and whether the government is adequately addressing the socio-environmental dimensions of climate change.

The Year for Climate Ambition

2020 is a critical year for climate policy because countries are supposed to update their climate pledges every five years.  With few nations on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, the coming months will be absolutely critical for achieving more robust commitments.

In addition to Chile, the Marshall Islands, Suriname, Norway, Republic of Moldova, Singapore and Japan have already submitted revised climate plans.  Although it is encouraging that these countries are acting early, many of their revised NDCs are highly disappointing.

Japan’s revised NDC submitted in late March, which maintains its commitment to only a 26 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 from its 2013 levels, was panned by the World Resources Institute. The revised plan does little to address Japan’s dependency on coal, which supplies one-third of the nation’s electricity. The uninspiring commitments by the world’s fifth-largest emitter represent a major setback to global climate ambition.  

Singapore submitted an updated climate pledge that sets a peak emissions target of 65 MtCO2e around 2030 and aims for a 36 percent reduction in emissions intensity by 2030 from its 2005 levels. Its NDC fails to give a definitive timetable for net-zero emissions.  

Norway’s NDC aims to cut emissions at least 50 percent by 2030 from its 1990 levels. While this is a step forward from the 40 percent target in its original plan, Climate Action Tracker still rates this plan as insufficient to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Chile Steps Up

Chile’s revised climate targets represent a major upgrade from its first NDC, which had 2030 targets that were rated as “highly insufficient” by Climate Action Tracker. The original NDC set an unconditional goal of reducing its CO2 emissions per GDP unit by 30 percent below its 2007 levels by 2030 and established a conditional target of a 35 percent to 45 percent reduction in emissions.

The revised NDC is much more comprehensive. Chile’s new document contains mitigation, adaptation and integration components, while basing these components on a social pillar that links climatic and socio-environmental dimensions.

In terms of mitigation, Chile has committed to a greenhouse gas emissions level of 95 MtCO2e by 2030, setting a 2025 target date for peak emissions. Chile also seeks to build on its decarbonization plan launched last year and achieve greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050 by decreasing emissions, and by increasing and maintaining natural carbon sinks. The document also reaffirms Chile’s commitment to eliminate coal-fired power plants by 2040.

The revised NDC also addresses the issue of black carbon, a climate-warming pollutant that comes from such sources as the burning of gas and diesel engines and coal-fired power plants. This pollutant is a major source of contamination in Chilean cities.  While the original NDC talked about the importance of lowering black carbon levels, it did not offer a timetable for doing so. The revised plan aims to reduce total black carbon emissions by at least 25 percent by 2030 from 2016 levels.  

“It remains to be seen how it will be implemented, but it seems like a fairly important baseline, especially considering that the mitigation of black carbon is not something that many countries are considering in their climate policies. And it is very important to do so,” said Florencia Ortúzar, attorney at the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA).

The inclusion of the social pillar in Chile’s revised NDC is an important step for a nation reeling from several months of social unrest. The social pillar seeks to incorporate the UN Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda in each commitment in the NDC and focus on a just transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy. 

“Considering that drastic changes will have to be made to face the climate crisis, it is super important that they go hand-in-hand with a human rights approach. If not, as has happened many times, the solutions end up being worse than the disease,” said Ortúzar. “This is something that I think we can celebrate from the new NDC.”

Room for Improvement 

While Chile has shown leadership when it comes to ramping up climate ambition, its overall environmental track record has been mixed.  The Chilean government has engaged in a “double discourse” on coal and refused to sign and ratify the Escazu Agreement, a regional environmental treaty among Latin American and Caribbean nations to protect the human rights of environmental defenders and provide public access to information. Chile also showed “irresponsibly weak” leadership as it presided over UN climate negotiations in Madrid last December that ended disastrously.

Although its revised NDC is among the best submitted to date, there are still key weaknesses that must be addressed.

“There are areas that continue to be opportunities for improvement in Chile’s NDC such as advancing their emissions peak year to 2023, expanding the use of nature-based solutions from natural ecosystems as well as accounting for the increased possibilities that cities’ sustainable planning and citizens’ consumption patterns can deliver,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice.

It is also unclear how committed the Chilean government actually is to greenhouse gas neutrality. The domestic decarbonization plan it presented last year leaves many unanswered questions about how the country will rid itself of fossil fuels.  

“The decarbonization plan is not a public policy presented by the Chilean government with regulations changes to make the companies decarbonize the country’s electricity matrix,”  said Estefania González, Campaigns Coordinator at Greenpeace. “It is a voluntary commitment where we depend 100 percent on the will of the companies.”

González went on to say: 

“I still do not understand how Chile will reach its goal of reducing emissions by 2030 if 18 coal-fired thermoelectric plants will continue to operate at least until the year 2040. The truth is that this is very unrealistic and difficult to achieve.”

González also expressed doubts about whether the social pillar adequately addresses the social-environmental challenges Chile faces. She was particularly critical of how the NDC addresses water in the adaptation component, pointing to the ongoing water crisis in Chile and how access to water has become a major issue during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Even if Chile is able to remove coal from its electricity matrix by 2040, it may not be fast enough for those suffering in the country’s notorious sacrifice zones. These are areas where industrial processing and natural resource extraction are concentrated, forcing them to bear the environmental and health costs of these activities. All of the country’s coal plants are located in five provinces along the Chilean coast.

“If you look at it from the point of view of the people who live in the sacrifice areas, are you going to punish me for 20 more years? I mean, it’s unacceptable,” said Ortúza.

While these and other concerns remain about Chile’s climate commitments, its updated NDC provides some hope that other nations will take the Paris Agreement seriously and present ambitious targets ahead of COP26.

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