Chile’s Stance on Coal a ‘Double Discourse’

Source: “Coal”by weak_hope is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Sam Goodman and Adrián Martínez

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera recently unveiled his country’s decarbonization plan as the nation prepares to host the annual UN climate conference in Santiago this December.

Piñera set a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, which is centered on the phaseout of Chile’s 28 coal-fired power plants. Despite flaws, the plan represents a major step forward from Chile’s previous climate commitments, including its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) that has been described as “critically insufficient.” 

A path to carbon neutrality?

Piñera’s decarbonization announcement focused on shutting down eight of the nation’s oldest coal plants by 2024, cutting coal production by 19 percent.  The plan seeks to eliminate coal entirely by 2040, putting the country on a path toward making its climate commitments 2°C compatible.

While Climate Action Tracker hailed the plan as a “remarkable step,” others are disappointed by the plan’s lack of details, ambition and accountability. At this stage, there is no policy in place to ensure that coal will be phased out by 2040 and there has been a lack of transparency as to how the government and industry will do this.  

Chile Sustentable Executive Director Sara Larraín believes that coal could be eliminated as early as 2030 and the initial round of closures lacks ambition. “The 8 coal plants, 7 of which are more than 40 years old, are barely producing,” she said. “It was an announcement of little relevance.”

With Chile is presiding over COP25, Fundación Terram Executive Director Flavia Liberona said that “the plan tremendously unambitious. It leaves the place of leadership to another country.”

A ‘double discourse’

Piñera’s plan to phase out coal was undercut by the opening of a new coal power plant in the port city of Mejillones in northern Chile, just a few weeks before his decarbonization announcement.  This new coal plant is said to be the final one built in Chile.

Claiming to be taking steps to comply with the new decarbonization plan, French multinational ENGIE, which built the new plant, closed down two of its older plants in the port city of Tocopilla.  However, many were quick to note that the new plant in Mejillones has an operating capacity of 375 MW, which is more than double the capacity of the two Tocopilla plants.  This type of “double discourse,” as Larraín called it, undermines Piñera’s phaseout of coal.

Sacrifice zones

Chile’s coal production and extractive economy are currently reliant on “sacrifice zones” in five provinces along the nation’s coast. 

“Sacrifice zones” refer to areas where industrial processing and natural resource extraction are concentrated, forcing these areas to bear the environmental and health costs of these activities. Exposure to atmospheric contaminants from these coal plants and other industrial activities has taken a devastating toll on communities. These zones disproportionately affect poor and vulnerable populations.   

All 28 coal utilities are located within five sacrificial zones along the Pacific Coast in Mejillones (8), Tocopilla (7), Huasco (5), Puchuncací (5) and Coronel (3).

Source: Fundación Terram

The failure of the coal utilities and other companies to protect the well-being of these communities has been the source of much contention.   Organizations such as Mujeres de Zona de Sacrificio Quintero – Puchuncaví en Resistencia (MUZOSARE) and Defensoria Ambiental have  been fighting in the courts for a clean environment due to the massive poisonings suffered last year and the severe health and environmental impacts that the communities face. 

Source: Fundación Terram

Foreign companies reign

Foreign interests play a dominant role in coal power generation. A little over half of these plants are operated by AES Gener, whose parent company is the U.S.-owned AES Corporation, while the French company ENGIE and Italy’s Enel operate most of the rest.

Chile coal utility ownership in 2016
Source: Chile Sustentable (March 2017)

Chile is not a major producer of coal and relies on imports.  Colombia provides Chile with the vast majority of its coal, while the United States and Australia are also suppliers.  Domestically, coal is mined in the Magallanes region on the Island of Riesgo in the south, but, as Larraín said, this coal is of poor quality in comparison to Colombia’s. 

Building on Bachelet’s Momentum

While the new decarbonization plan is far from perfect, it builds on the progress made by former President Michelle Bachelet.  

Bachelet, who implemented the continent’s first carbon tax and vastly improved its wind and solar capacity, also declared that Chile would begin phasing out coal in January 2018.  Her government reached an agreement with the major utilities that new coal plants would not be built without carbon capture technology.

“Anticipating our commitments to the Paris Agreement and thanks to the collaboration of generating companies, Chile will have a decarbonized development. We will not build more coal-fired power plants, and we will gradually close and replace those that exist,” wrote Bachelet on Twitter.

Clearing the path to COP25

While Piñera’s decarbonization announcement represents a move in the right direction for Chile, there is much work to be done ahead of COP25.

Perhaps most importantly, Chile is not a signatory to the 2018 Escazú Agreement that seeks to protect the rights of environmental defenders.  Chile was one of the first countries that in 2012 committed to a negotiating process for the Escazú Agreement. Although Chile played a key role in the lead up to the agreement, it has failed to take any meaningful action. Sixteen other countries in the region have signed the treaty and two have already ratified it.

With Latin America being the most dangerous region in the world for environmental activists, it is imperative that Chile take a leadership role in the region. Chile must stand in stark contrast to the deplorable policies of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, whose anti-environmental and anti-human rights agenda is upending the region.

“It is very relevant for us in Chile that the government signs and ratifies the Escazú Agreement. It has not been done and we are extremely worried,” said Liberona. 

Chile has shown that it wants to be recognized as a climate leader by the international community.  However, the lack of clarity in its decarbonization plan and failure to embrace something as fundamental as the Escazú Agreement has left many disappointed by this year’s host country.  

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