By Matt Maynard
SANTIAGO, June 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Chile's new climate change plan, unveiled by President Sebastian Pinera this week, puts the host of this year's U.N. climate conference on track to play its part in meeting globally agreed goals to limit warming of the planet, researchers said.
But green-leaning politicians and activists in the South American nation called on the government to bring forward its deadlines for closing coal-fired power plants.
On Tuesday, Pinera unveiled a climate action plan that would shut all coal power plants by 2040, and target carbon neutrality by 2050, meaning the country would emit no more heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions than it can absorb in its forests.
"One of the greatest dangers we confront as humanity is global warming and climate change," said the president.
Eight coal-fired power plants will be closed down in the next five years, he announced.
Coal produces almost twice the amount of carbon dioxide as natural gas when burned.
By 2050, all economic sectors - including agriculture, waste and industrial processes - should become carbon-neutral, the plan said.
Chile's forests absorbed 36% of national emissions in 2013, and the 2050 net-zero goal would depend on their contribution to the carbon accounting.
In December, 20,000 to 30,000 delegates, including world leaders, are expected in Santiago for the annual U.N. climate talks, where governments will be urged to ramp up pledges to reduce emissions under the Paris climate change accord.
Research consortium Climate Action Tracker (CAT) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that if Chile's decarbonisation plan became an official commitment under the Paris Agreement, it would be compatible with the most ambitious goal to curb warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7F) above pre-industrial times.
The Paris pact, adopted by nearly 200 nations, set a goal to limit global temperature rise to "well below" 2C (3.6F), and to "pursue efforts" for 1.5C.
But still-rising global emissions are currently on track to fuel at least 3C of warming, climate scientists say.
In the build-up to the Paris conference where the climate accord was agreed in 2015, Chile committed to reduce the intensity of its emissions relative to GDP by 30% by 2030 from 2007 levels.
This target was rated "highly insufficient" by CAT.
Moreover, under that plan, CAT calculated that Chile's emissions would actually rise 41% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels as the country left itself space for economic growth.
Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt described the unveiling of Chile's more ambitious plan this week as "an enormous landmark in the transformation needed throughout the world for sustainable development and carbon neutrality".
But not all politicians are satisfied.
In late May, opposition leader Catalina Perez proposed a "climate emergency" declaration to the organising committee for the "COP25" U.N. climate change conference.
"It went badly," she said afterwards, with fellow members unable to reach consensus.
Meanwhile the effects of global warming are becoming more evident in the Andean nation.
"We have to learn to live with climate change," a windswept Pinera said a week ago, as he visited the southern Bio Bio region, which had been hit by highly unusual tornadoes. "It has come to stay."
Scientists are still investigating the influence of climate change on the severity and frequency of tornadoes.
Chile is currently affected by a multi-year drought and creeping deserts, which are shifting fruit production to the more temperate south.
The country is home to 82% of Andean glaciers, nearly all of which are in retreat, threatening water supplies.
Flooding, heatwaves and devastating forest fires are other impacts already being experienced - and which scientists predict will worsen as the planet heats up.
On Wednesday's World Environment Day, Perez's Democratic Revolution Party joined 52 civil society groups in a letter urging Pinera to deepen commitments to tackling climate change.
Signatories included Extinction Rebellion Chile, Greenpeace Chile and the international youth movement of children skipping school to protest about climate inaction, "Fridays for Future".
"We hope COP25 will be remembered by future generations as the moment that the planet's luck changed," it concluded.
Meanwhile, in the inhabited areas around Chile's coal-power plants, air pollution is a far bigger issue than carbon dioxide emissions.
Parliamentarian Diego Ibanez, who represents Quintero and Puchuncavi, two of the coal plant zones, warned that the region's children would be "condemned to five more years" of health risks, citing a prevalence of cognitive difficulties and cancer among the local population.
Others fear plant closures could result in job losses and rising energy prices, but Energy Minister Susana Jimenez said seven months of talks with the affected industries had preceded the announcement.
"We have analysed the security and efficiency of the electricity system and of course the social and labour effects that the closure will cause," she told journalists.
Felix Gonzalez, president of the Green Ecologist Party, said the government was allowing coal plants to continue with their business model.
The last new coal plant in Chile, built by French company ENGIE, was commissioned in 2014, and began production just six days before Pinera's announcement.
Gonzalez said the plants now slated for closure were already "past or very close to the end of their useful life", meaning the industry was not being inconvenienced.
"We know it is not financially viable for these companies to build new plants," he added.
Electricity production in Chile without coal would be "entirely possible 10 years earlier, in 2030, as demonstrated by numerous publications from civil society and academia", Perez argued.
In his speech, the president noted Chile was rich in renewable energy sources, referring to solar, wind, marine and geothermal.
For now, Chile has yet to finalise its much-debated climate change law, which has been held up by bureaucratic and legal hurdles but is expected to be in place before the U.N. talks.
Neither has Chile adopted the Escazu Accord enshrining access to information and protection for those working on environmental justice in Latin America and the Caribbean.
When a climate protest by striking students overran the allotted time this March in Santiago, police used tear gas on the crowd.
Flavia Liberona, head of Chilean environmental justice group Terram Foundation, said it was "inexcusable" that the host government of the U.N. climate summit had not ratified an accord "that is fundamental to tackle socio-environmental conflicts".
(Reporting by Matt Maynard; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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