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Climate Governance in Chile: A Closer Look at COP25’s Host

Reserva Nacional De Los Flamencos, Atacama Desert, Chile Source: Wikimedia Commons

This year’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) will take place in Santiago, Chile from December 2 to 13, with Pre-COP activities in San Jose, Costa Rica.  Chile offered to host this year’s activities following the withdrawal of Brazil under then President-elect Jair Bolsonaro.

With the COP returning to Latin America for the first time since 2014, Chile was considered a desirable host. Under former President Michelle Bachelet, Chile implemented South America’s first carbon tax, vastly improved its wind and solar capacity, and announced a plan to phase out its use of coal. President Sebastián Piñera, who succeeded Bachelet in 2018, and Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt, who has been named president-designate for this year’s conference, have been working to build on the previous administration’s progress.

In a New York Times op-ed, Bachelet said that during her second term Chile tripled the amount of renewable energy and lowered prices from $130 to $32 per megawatt hour.  She wrote that “we have harnessed the power of the sun and the wind in our deserts and along our coastlines, and made use of steam from deep inside our volcanoes via geothermal plants.” She also pointed to Chile’s increasing the area of ocean waters and land protected, imposing the first green taxes, and prohibiting plastic bags.

Despite these advances, Chile’s climate agenda is far from perfect. Chile is a non-signatory of the Escazú Agreement, the first environmental treaty for Latin America and Caribbean nations that seeks to protect environmental human rights defenders. And the targets set forth in its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) have received criticism from environmental groups.

A global leader in solar

Solar panels project in Northern Chile Source: Wikimedia Commons

Under Bachelet’s watch, Chile implemented bold policies to make Chile a renewable energy powerhouse.  Northern Chile’s Atacama desert has been described as a “solar Saudi Arabia.”   By the end of 2017, solar and wind already accounted for 14 percent of Chile’s electricity, with the country striving for 60 percent clean energy by 2035 and 70 percent by 2050.  Chilean solar-powered plants produce electricity at about half the cost of coal, which made up 41 percent of total electricity generation in 2016.

“Chile is inspiring the world with a significant expansion of solar energy [which has grown] more quickly than in any other country in the planet,” said former Vice President and founder of The Climate Reality Project Al Gore.

Taxing carbon

Bachelet has also positioned Chile as a regional climate leader with the implementation of the continent’s first carbon tax, which took effect in 2017. This tax targets large industrial and power generation sources at $5 per ton of carbon dioxide

“We are convinced that green growth is possible, and that government can develop market instruments such as a carbon tax to prevent distortions,” wrote former Environment Minister Marcelo Mena in the Huffington Post.  “We believe we can face climate change not sacrificing our growth, but actually making our communities more sustainable. We believe in the end, that we can face climate change, the Chilean Way. …”

While the tax helped pull in $190 million in revenue in April 2018 alone, its overall effectiveness in reducing carbon dioxide emissions has been called into question.  Mena has pushed for increasing the carbon tax to accelerate Chile’s transition to a carbon-free economy.

Non-signatory of Escazú Agreement

The 2018 Escazú Agreement – one of two regional treaties focusing on environmental democracy – seeks to protect the rights of environmental defenders in the deadliest region for environmental activists.  Unfortunately, Chile is not among the agreement’s 16 signatories.

“We are definitely looking at Chile to sign the Escazú Agreement,” says Sébastien Duyck, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law. “I think it is a very important message that Chile needs to send both because it is one of the countries that championed that process and also because, after this COP, we really realized that we need a much better presidency than we had in Poland in relation to these damages.”

An underwhelming NDC

Chile has also drawn fire for its 2015 NDC.  Each party to the Paris Agreement must prepare, communicate and maintain successive NDCs, outlining the country’s climate pledges.

Chile’s goals have been labeled “Critically Insufficient” by Climate Tracker, which gave Chile’s 2030 climate commitments its lowest possible rating.  It said that, “if all countries were to follow Chile’s approach, warming would exceed 4°C,” and that “Chile’s targets are far from an emissions pathway consistent with limiting warming to below 2°C, let alone with the Paris Agreement’s stronger 1.5°C limit.”

A global bright spot

While the disastrous environmental agenda of Brazilian President Bolsonaro has dominated headlines in the region, Bachelet and Piñera have positioned Chile to become a global climate leader.  Chile has fallen short in some key areas, but its advances in renewable energy capacity should be an inspiration for COP25 attendees. With Chile under the spotlight, the nation will feel increased pressure to sign the Escazú Agreement and fine-tune its climate commitments to make its emissions pathway consistent with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C goal.  Chile and Costa Rica have stood out as key regional leaders in transitioning toward a low-carbon economy and make them excellent co-organizers for this year’s climate activities.

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