Make way for Chile: Latin America’s next climate frontrunner

Since being elected for a second presidential term in December 2017, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has placed climate action at the top of his political agenda, building upon a strong legacy of climate leadership and legislative action undertaken by the previous Bachelet administration. Over the past two years, Piñera has firmly pulled his country to the forefront of both Latin American and global climate leadership, and in recognition of his advanced energy and green policy progress, the Atlantic Council will honor the Chilean president at its annual Global Citizen Awards on Monday, September 23rd. This award could not be timelier—as millions of youth and activists from around the globe descend on national capitals to demand action on climate change in advance of the UN General Assembly Climate Summit and as intense weather events continue to batter both the Texas coast and the Caribbean.

Political inaction on climate change could have severe consequences, and as an oceanic and Antarctic state, Chile will be forced to contend with numerous climate threats: deglaciation, sea level rise, drought, and desertification, not to mention indirect effects such as internal migration and food insecurity. And Chile will face this despite only generating 0.25 percent of global greenhouse gases.

Standing up to the challenge, the current Chilean government has refused to remain idle or complacent. President Piñera’s government is likely to use the coming year to advance unilateral and multilateral climate action, especially as it prepares to host COP25 in Santiago this December. Whatever the Summit outcome may be, Chile has firmly positioned itself as a leader in the climate advocacy and policy space and is ready to take advantage of its renewable resources and rich mineral deposits to move into a clean energy future.

In taking on a new climate leadership role after Brazil withdrew its bid to host COP25 in November 2018, Piñera will welcome the annual climate summit to Santiago this December, further solidifying Chile’s place as a global climate and advanced energy leader. This COP bears extra weight, as it precedes the post-Paris five-year benchmark summit to take place in 2020, during which countries are expected to set bigger, more ambitious climate goals. At the Santiago COP, the Chilean government, as chief moderator, will hope to sway countries to up the ante on their climate commitments, but will likely face an uphill battle from several of the world’s top emitters, namely the United States and several rapidly developing nations like Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Given its geography, Chile will prioritize sea level rise, ocean sustainability, and marine protection as key issues at this year’s COP.

As chief COP negotiators for Chile, President Piñera and Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt will play an outsized role in brokering multilateral compromise and laying the groundwork for a fruitful COP26 in 2020. If successful, Chilean leadership, like the French before them, could convince states, high and low-emitting alike, to greatly expand the scope of their climate action and take our planetary emergency seriously. The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that we have twelve years to make the changes necessary to reverse and subvert global climate change before we hit a tipping point; the stakes for Chile, and the world at large, could not be higher.

Fortunately, given its current legislative agenda and policy outcomes, there are few countries more suited to lead the world in global climate action than Chile. With respect to climate and energy policy, Piñera has pushed ambitious legislation and set strong goals, reinforcing the Bachelet 2050 Energy Strategy, which established a national carbon tax and committed Chile to 70 percent renewable energy production by 2050. Going beyond that, his government seeks to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent over the next five years, decarbonize the energy sector by 2040, and make Chile carbon neutral by 2050. In doing so, the government is working to shutter all twenty-eight operating coal plants by 2040, decommission eight over the next five years, and implement energy efficiency regulations to reduce total energy consumption by 7 percent by 2035. To codify Chile’s climate goals into law and develop a robust policy framework to achieve them, the Chilean government began drafting the Framework Law on Climate Change in the first half of this year and submitted the text for public review in June. If passed into law, this bill would establish a set of governance principles, management instruments, and adequate financing mechanisms to allow for a successful zero-carbon transition, increased climate resilience, and high-levels of climate compliance.

Furthermore, Chile now boasts the world’s second-largest electric bus fleet, trailing only China, with the government intent on replacing 40 percent of private vehicles and 100 percent of public transport with electric vehicles (EVs) by 2050. In June 2019, the number of electric buses and charging stations in the country stood at 400 and eighty-one respectively, with the number of vehicles in circulation quadrupling over the past eighteen months. Going forward, the Chilean government intends to expand the EV strategy to include commercial trucks, scooters, and taxis, with the ultimate goal of increasing the national EV fleet tenfold by 2022 and raising the total number of charging stations to two hundred. Additionally, Chile is the world’s biggest copper producer and second-largest lithium producer, as well as home to the planet’s largest known reserves of both metals. Looking to move beyond primary lithium extraction, the Piñera government has directed its attention to domestic ore processing and advanced battery manufacturing. With the help of preferential pricing and government action, Chilean officials seek to convince East Asian battery producers to open downstream plants in Chile in the near future.

Despite Chile’s impressive recent policy actions, the Andean nation has also received criticism for its weak 2015 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). In September 2019, Climate Action Tracker, which evaluates Paris commitments against current national policies, rated Chile’s NDCs and climate efforts as “highly insufficient” to keep warming below 1.5 degrees. According to the watchdog, if all governments pursued NDCs and policies in line with Chiles’, global warming would reach between three and four degrees, well over the Paris target. Despite this, Climate Action Tracker projects that, if Chile successfully decommissions all coal plants by 2050 and completely decarbonizes its energy sector, the Andean nation will be on track to meet Paris goals. Furthermore, it is crucial to note that few countries to date have received a “sufficient” Climate Tracker ranking, not even progressive states like Sweden, Japan, or New Zealand. As Chile steams ahead with strong advanced energy and climate policy, its rating is certain to gainfully improve.

Regardless of the COP outcome, one thing is clear: Chile has firmly launched itself into the low-carbon future and has demonstrated no interest in going back. As the public electric transport capital of the Americas with a robust renewable energy and environmental policy framework, Chile stands as an exemplar of climate progress and vision, both in the region and beyond.

Zachary Strauss is an assistant director at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.

Image: Santiago, Chile (photo by Horst Engelmann/Pixabay).