By Sam Goodman and Helen Gutierrez
The 15-year rule of Uruguay’s progressive Broad Front coalition could come to an end in October’s presidential election, but its environmental achievements need to be continued.
Under the coalition’s watch, Uruguay has implemented a robust climate agenda, scaling up renewable energy, transforming the nation’s energy matrix, issuing a moratorium on fracking and proposing ambitious climate commitments. This agenda has been quite popular and has had the backing of the nation’s major political parties.
Will Uruguay change course?
Broad Front candidate Daniel Martínez, former mayor of Montevideo, is set to square off against the center-right National Party’s Luis Lacalle Pou, a senator and son of former President Luis Alberto Lacalle. Economist and university professor Ernesto Talvi of the centrist Colorado Party and retired General Guido Manini Ríos of the far-right Open Forum are also in the mix.
Martínez holds a slight lead over Lacalle Pou, but neither candidate will likely meet the 50 percent threshold needed to win the first round outright. The right and centrist parties may form a coalition before the second round to prevent a fourth-consecutive Broad Front term.
“I think the stars have aligned in Uruguay because we have many more commonalities than differences, and that’s why this new generation of leaders has the ability to build a common project and offer it to citizens,” said Talvi about a possible coalition in an interview with Agencia EFE.
The Broad Front rose to power in 2004 with the election of Tabaré Vázquez in the midst of an economic recession that plagued the nation in the early 2000s. Vázquez was succeeded by José Pepe Mujica, a former guerrilla who was imprisoned for 12 years under Uruguay’s brutal military dictatorship. Vázquez ran again in 2014, easily defeating Lacalle Pou.
Under Vázquez and Mujica, in addition to environmental advances, Uruguay has made far-reaching social changes. It fully legalized marijuana, championed LGBTI rights, and became one of three Latin American countries to permit elective abortions.
While a shift to the center-right might be consequential in many respects for the country, it might not make a big difference when it comes to the next administration’s climate agenda.
“In Uruguay, we understand that renewable energy issues, environmental issues are consensus issues among the main political parties,” said Ignacio Lorenzo, the director of the Climate Change Division in Uruguay’s Ministry of Housing, Land Planning and Environment.
No stranger to climate impacts
Climate change and ecological destruction are impacting people all over the world and Uruguay is no exception. With a population of just under 3.5 million people, Uruguay accounts for only 0.05 percent of global emissions. As the climatologist Dr. Mario Caffera put it, “Uruguay doesn’t move the global needle.”
Yet Uruguay is highly vulnerable to climate change and its impacts.
General climate trends point toward gradually increasing ambient temperatures and higher annual rainfall, with wetter El Niño years and drier La Niña years. Additionally, changes in wind and wave patterns and an increase in sea level have led to greater coastal erosion.
Approximately 70 percent of the total population lives on the Uruguayan coast, with one-third living in Montevideo. The Uruguayan economy is based heavily on agricultural production and tourism, particularly on the coast, and climate variability and extreme weather events are expected to adversely impact these two sectors.
Economic growth doubled from 1990 to 2017, and great strides have been made in social reforms, especially those aimed at vulnerable populations. However, given Uruguay’s economic dependence on natural resources, climate impacts could be disastrous in the coming years and will be one of the challenges faced by the next president.
Fighting an ‘ecological holocaust’
Uruguay has stood out among the international community in leading by example. In less than 10 years, Uruguay managed to slash its reliance on coal and dirty energy, and nearly 100 percent of Uruguay’s electricity now comes from renewable energy.
Unlike other models, the country’s energy grid is comprised of a diverse mix of renewable energy sources. In addition to hydropower, the country has invested in wind, solar, and biomass. Wind makes up about a third of the electricity matrix, up from one percent in 2013.
Regardless of political affiliations, the country is defining itself as a leader in renewable energy, particularly in wind electricity generation.
In 2017, Uruguay placed a four-year moratorium on fracking with unanimous approval from Uruguay’s parliament. Even more remarkable, Uruguay’s successful shift to renewable energy was accomplished without government subsidies or higher consumer costs. Severe droughts in the early 2000s significantly impacted the country’s hydroelectric capacity and rendered the country dependant on fossil fuels to address increasing energy demands. In a bid to move away from dirty energy and diversify the energy mix, Uruguay opened up the market to wind farms in 2007 and has since become a world leader in wind power generation.
“This puts us, together with four or five other countries, at the forefront worldwide in renewable energy use, and we are very proud of this. We think that this is a path that can be replicated by other countries around the world to efficiently fight against climate change,” said Lorenzo.
Strong political leadership and a multipartisan consensus helped bring about this energy revolution in Uruguay. Mujica, in particular, was an outspoken advocate for climate action, fearing that a combination of capitalism and climate change could lead to an “ecological holocaust.”
Martínez, who recently announced his team of environmental advisors headed by the biologist Verónica Piñeiro, has also been a vocal advocate for climate action. As mayor of Montevideo, Martínez attended the 2015 climate negotiations in Paris and has been a strong proponent of the Paris Agreement.
Martínez pushed for improving and modernizing public transport, installing more bike lanes and accelerating the introduction of electric vehicles. He was also extremely critical of President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the agreement, calling his decision a “clear setback on the road to prevent climate collapse and place people at the center of concerns by the rulers.” In the wake of Trump’s decision, he reaffirmed his city’s commitment to mitigate climate change and build a better future.
“We will put all our efforts to help demonstrate that a model of solidarity and environmentally friendly development is possible,” wrote Martínez.
Lacalle Pou, on the other hand, has been much less vocal on the issue. His conservative leanings show a more business-oriented approach, saying that each government should consider “how much the environment is worth to it and how much it is willing to pay for it.” Lacalle Pou has also proposed the creation of the Ministry of the Environment, combining the duties of several other ministries.
But there is reason to be skeptical. When asked if he would prefer the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro or Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad in last year’s election in Brazil, Lacalle Pou responded, “surely not Haddad.” While he has been reticent to praise Bolsonaro, Lacalle Pou has said that he will have some “virtues” as president.
A robust NDC
In 2017, Uruguay submitted its first Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), the country’s commitment to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Compared to other developing nations, Uruguay offers impressive mitigation objectives, including an unconditional 24 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, 57 percent reduction in methane emissions and 48 percent reduction in nitrous oxide emissions by 2025 from its 1990 levels. Uruguay offers even more ambitious goals for all three greenhouse gases, conditioned on specific means of implementation.
“To rely on the multilateral system and to strengthen it, it is necessary to fulfill our commitments at the international level,” said Lorenzo.
Under Vázquez and Mujica, Uruguay has emerged as a global leader on climate, establishing ambitious goals in its commitments and making massive strides in terms of renewable energy. Uruguay’s progressive climate agenda transcends party lines and the momentum set forth by the Broad Front coalition must continue into the next administration, no matter who becomes president in 2020.