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Chile charts path to greener, fairer future after coronavirus

by John Bartlett | @jwbartlett92 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 13 April 2020 19:00 GMT

Pedestrians wearing face masks as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), walk next to a sculpture of the world in a public park in Vina del Mar, Chile April 11, 2020. REUTERS/Rodrigo Garrido

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Environment minister says COVID-19 recovery must be 'sustainable' as Chile puts social justice in new climate plan

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By John Bartlett

SANTIAGO, April 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Chile fights COVID-19 against a backdrop of unresolved social tensions, the government hopes its strengthened plan to tackle climate change will help ease inequality while getting a green boost from economic recovery after the coronavirus outbreak.

On Thursday, Chile became the second South American country after Suriname - and the seventh in the world - to publish an updated national climate action plan under the Paris Agreement to curb global warming.

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The 2015 accord, adopted by roughly 195 nations, calls for states to submit new or revised plans, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), by 2020, with the expectation they will contain stricter targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions faster and further this decade.

Chile's updated NDC is centred around a commitment to become carbon-neutral by 2050, a goal it first announced last year.

The plan sets more ambitious aims than the previous version, with planet-warming emissions now projected to peak in 2025, the setting of a 2030 cap on annual emissions and a goal to cut emissions from deforestation 25% by the end of the decade.

Many climate experts welcomed it as a step up in Chile's climate policy, although some said it did not go far enough.

The plan is built around a "social pillar" framework that apportions fairly between genders the costs, benefits and responsibilities of weaning the economy off fossil fuels, while protecting the rights and living standards of vulnerable groups.

Announcing the new plan, Chilean Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt said once the country had overcome the coronavirus "crisis", "we will enter a rehabilitation phase which must be sustainable".

The revised NDC "will allow us to focus our plans on a clear objective: to move towards a low-emission, climate-resilient economy with social, environmental and economic advantages that improve everybody's quality of life", she added.

According to online tracker Climate Watch, 106 countries have said they intend to enhance their ambition or action to tackle climate change in an NDC by 2020, representing 15% of global emissions.

Chile's share of global greenhouse gas emissions was about 0.25% in 2016, according to the government.

Chile made its first emissions reduction pledge at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, before promising for the Paris Agreement to cut the emissions intensity of its gross domestic product by between 30% and 45% by 2030 from 2007 levels.

Its initial Paris targets were rated as "highly insufficient" by analysts working with Climate Action Tracker.

Marcelo Mena-Carrasco, a former Chilean environment minister, said the updated NDC was "an encouraging step", making Chile the first country in the Americas to formally commit to net-zero emissions by 2050 within a U.N. platform.

The pledge is even more significant considering Chile's economy is based on carbon-emitting mining, forestry and agriculture – calling for a more profound industrial transformation than other economies might require, he added.


Making such a shift would bring benefits, according to a study by the NewClimate Institute.

If Chile were to be fully powered by renewable energy by 2050, it could generate savings of more than $5 billion annually, reduce deaths related to air pollution in the capital, Santiago, and generate up to 11,000 new jobs, the study said.

Chile's environment ministry said in a statement that meeting the carbon-neutrality goal would generate investment opportunities estimated at $27 billion-$49 billion by 2050.

"The 2050 target is something that requires us to show our commitment from today," said Mena-Carrasco.

One option, he explained, could be to hike the carbon tax his administration implemented in 2014, alongside closing coal-fired power plants earlier than the current target date of 2040 and expanding renewable electricity generation.

The NDC itself is not legally binding, and some aspects, including emissions targets, will need to be enshrined in a new climate change law, according to Mena-Carrasco.

Isabella Villanueva, president of the student-led environmental foundation CEUS Chile, said the document had "many encouraging aspects", such as its novel focus on social inclusion, but still "does not go far enough".

For example, it does not address the problem of Chile's "sacrifice zones" - industrialised parts of the country with high levels of pollution and emissions, she said.

Neither does it tackle reform of the 1980s water code that privatised the use of water, nor ecological problems caused by extensive monoculture tree plantations for the forestry industry, she added.

The plan does, however, put a focus on "nature-based" solutions and sets a goal to cut forestry emissions.


Chile has been under pressure to show international leadership on climate change after it was forced to withdraw from hosting the COP25 U.N. climate summit last December, following sustained civil unrest.

Although Chile still presided over the conference, it was hastily moved to Madrid, where the talks narrowly avoided collapse as high-emitting countries refused to compromise.

Having announced its new climate plan early in 2020, in a bid to set a positive example on the global stage, Chile will now face challenges – from the new coronavirus to political turbulence – in putting its promises into practice.

The explosive social protest movement driven by stark inequalities - which caused the insecurity leading to COP25's relocation - eventually led to concessions from the government.

Chile plans to vote on whether and how to draft a new constitution on October 25, after the coronavirus outbreak forced the referendum to be delayed by six months. A presidential election is also scheduled for 2021.

Matias Asun, director of Greenpeace Chile, said Chile's climate measures should address "mounting inequality" and go "deeper and broader in taking care of the most vulnerable citizens", by guaranteeing access to key resources like water and environmental justice.

Mena-Carrasco said there were many opportunities to incorporate climate-conscious policies into the new constitutional process, such as committing not to invest pension funds in fossil fuel companies.

The stepped-up NDC was "only a start", he added. "We must push on from here to solidify our commitment to tackling emissions - and hope the rest of the world can do the same."

(Reporting by John Bartlett; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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