The trade-off: Lights and shadows in Chile’s new NDC

After a broadly criticised handling of the UN climate talks last year, our Chilean correspondent Francisco Parra highlights the good, the bad, and what’s been left out of  Chile’s NDC, recently updated. 

What’s good in Chile’s NDC?

Ambition and transparency

Chile is not a giant emitter, but it is increasingly taking on more responsibility, perhaps owing to its international spotlight. 

In its new climate action plan, the South American country has shifted its focus from a planned reduction of 30% in 2015 (with an optional increase to 45%) to a 10-year carbon budget. Chile has committed to get to its peak of emissions by 2025, and a planned drawdown by 2030. 

The 3 big numbers are:

  1. a budget of 1,100 MtCO2eq between 2020 and 2030, 
  2. a maximum year of emissions (peak) in 2025 
  3. an emissions goal of 95 MtCO2eq in 2030.

To evaluate these commitments, I spoke with Olga Alcaraz, an academic from the Climate Change Governance Group at the Universidad Politécnica de Catalunya (UPC). For the last few years, the group’s members have been working as advisors with a number of Latin American countries, hoping to update their emissions reductions plans in alignment with their broader development goals. 

A forest in the Patagonia. Chile's NDC protect around 100,000 hectares of forests

A forest in the Chilean Patagonia. Photo: sandrocisternas/Pixabay

Alcaraz believes these budget numbers are  “an example for the world” to follow, especially in the context of what she sadly called an “unrealistic” global effort at 1.5 degrees.  

She also praised the budget figure of 1,100 MtCO2eq as a transparency exercise that other countries should observe. “This is very important because accumulated emissions are precisely what contributes to increased temperatures. The problem is that countries have a tradition of reporting commitments with values for a given year, and not with cumulative emissions. Chile doing this is an example if we keep in mind that it is a country with a very small percentage of emissions”, she explains.


Chile’s NDC passes the test

Alcaraz and her team recently published a paper text called “Key elements to incorporate justice, development and ambition in an NDC”. Their research is built around a mathematical model that evaluates the emissions reduction commitments linking equality (emissions per capita), responsibility (historical emissions), capacity (GDP per capita) and the right to development. 

This last element works off a complex combination of a country’s annual public spending, (using a complex combination of the percentage of public spending, its dependence on fossil fuels, energy sovereignty, Gini coefficient, access to drinking water and other key governance indicators). The model created by the UPC group assigns Chile a total budget of 3,500 MtCO2eq to emit between 2017 and 2100. That would be the “piece” of the cake of the global carbon budget that corresponds to the country.

“The 1.100 MtCO2eq commitment for 10 years is more or less 30% of what corresponds to Chile (using this model). We think it is an ambitious goal, because emissions are clearly below the total that the climate justice model provides”.

It is important to clarify that this model is based on the goal of 2°C, not 1.5°C. Olga Alcaraz also believes that this most ambitious target may not be as sincere as many want to believe: “The big emitters have already spent more of the global carbon budget that they should, so today, talking about 1.5°C is very complicated. It is unrealistic, and I am very sad to say it”.

When aiming for 1.5ºC, the picture is different. Climate Action Tracker, a consortium of analysts that rank countries according to their commitments (with aims to 1.5ºC) has upgraded the South American country from “highly insufficient” to “insufficient”. Representing the group, Niklas Höhne told Climate Home News that, to align with 2°C, Chile’s yearly emissions should be below 90MtCO2eq by 2030, and even lower for 1,5°C: “Compared to other countries, they are doing very well. But if we take the absolute benchmark of 1,5°C, it’s not very good”.


Linking climate and air quality policies

The NDC includes a commitment to reduce black carbon emissions by 25% by 2030. Black carbon (the main constituent of soot) consists of short-lived pollutants that come from incomplete combustion of fuels such as diesel or firewood and have a harmful effect on health.

This is an important issue in a country where several major cities are highly polluted. Between 3,000 and 4,000 people die yearly of pollution-related causes. According to Air Visual rankings, 9 of the 10 most polluted cities in Latin America are in Chile.

“This is a climatic and socio-environmental commitment that has to do with people’s daily lives. It has been a very important citizen demand and they have assumed it”, values Sara Larraín, from the NGO Chile Sustentable.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is clear in pointing out that low air quality damages respiratory health, which becomes essential in times of the coronavirus pandemic. Even more so when we begin to see the first studies linking Covid-19 death rates with exposure to MP2.5.


And what’s bad?

A boon for the forestry business

Chile commits to afforesting 200,000 new hectares to mitigate climate change. Half will be on land with “permanent forest cover“, 70,000 of which will be native forest. 

But what does that mean? Permanent cover refers to forests that are continuously protected. It’s not subject to logging and can’t be removed to make space for agricultural activities. In other words, the bulk of the reforestation proposal, 130,000 hectares, will be based on exotic species such as pine and eucalyptus and 100,000 of those can be harvested.

When the first draft of this plan first became public last October this is what professor Antonio Lara, a forest engineer at Universidad Austral told me about it: “ [The plan] may want to generate resources for the forest industry, but that is not going to improve Chile’s contribution in terms of mitigation. 50% of what is harvested in Chile is turned into pulp. In 2 years it will be back in the atmosphere”.

In addition, wood from exotic species exacerbates the magnitude and intensity of forest fires. 2017 saw the worst fire season in Chile so far, with more than half a million hectares burned that emitted 100 million tons of CO2eq. This amounts to 90% of Chile’s total emissions from the previous year.


Two more decades of Chilean Coal

Chile has planned to close its 28 coal power plants. There are ten plants that will close before 2024 and the rest of them before 2040. We know the exact dates of closure for the first batch, but nothing but the 2040 goal is known for the rest. Two more decades with coal await Chile.

A key environmental demand in Chile is the end of “sacrifice zones”, a name that local movements and civil society have put those places far from the big cities that concentrate the polluting industries such as coal plants.

An anti-coal activist in Santiago in 2010. Chile's NDC don't commit to coal exit.

An anti-coal activist in Santiago in 2010. Photo: carobrown/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Between August and October 2018, the health services of the Fifth Region collapsed when over 1,300 children and teenagers from the cities of Quintero and Puchuncaví started showing symptoms of poisoning. There are 16 natural gas and coal-fired power plants, as well as copper smelting and refining industries operating in the area. In 1992 the area was declared saturated with sulfur dioxide, but oil spills, coal stranding, and massive poisonings continue to occur. 

The region suffered a new peak in sulfur dioxide emissions this month, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. “A goal that sentences people to live in sacrifice zones alongside coal industries for 20 more years is not acceptable,” says Estefanía González of Greenpeace Chile. A goal that doesn’t need to wait so long: according to Climate Analytics, the country has the capacity to close its plants in 2032.


Francisco Parra
Climate Tracker's Latin America Programmes Manager. After covering 3 COP’s he’s now passionate about sharing his experience with journalists from across Latin America. Passionate drinker of Fernet and Terramotos. Working from Chile. Also speaks Spanish.