Chile fighting climate change — role model for the (developing) world

“No doubts remain. Climate change is real and the build-up of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is increasingly at an alarming rate.” With these words, Rafael Quiroga, General Manager of Accion RSE, initiated the seminar “Corporate Strategic Management of Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions.” This is not another “green business” seminar from a European or North American city, it took place here — in Santiago, Chile.

The event brought together speakers from the Chilean private sector that gave concrete examples of their companies’ climate change and GHG management initiatives. First, it showed how Essbio, a water purification company, has been dealing with the ever-prescient and escalating challenges of decreasing water reserves due to climate change.  Second, it illustrated the emissions and energy reductions Xstrata Copper, a mining company, has committed to and the steps it has taken to minimize the release of contaminants in its industrial processes. Third, it explained what Natura cosmetics has done since 2007 to become a “carbon neutral” business by calculating all GHG emissions in the company’s supply chain, transportation, and production of its various cosmetics products, and purchasing the equivalent amount of CO2 tonnage in carbon credits on the international carbon markets.

Although Chile is officially considered an Annex B, “developing” country under the dual classification of the Kyoto Protocol, the smaller country of 16 million inhabitants has been no stranger to addressing the climate change issue in recent years. In addition to private companies’ activities noted above, Chile has also completed some 40 projects via the Kyoto Protocol’s CDM market since 2004. These 40 projects have ranged from landfill methane gas capture, to a nationwide energy efficiency CFL lightbulbs installation project, to agricultural methane capture, and to a wind energy project – yielding a total of US$300 million in traded carbon credits for Chilean enterprises.

Moreover, in early December 2008, President Bachelet, alongside her Environment Minister, unveiled Chile’s official “National Climate Change Action Plan” for 2008-2012. The plan includes activities for

1) studying impacts and vulnerabilities,

2) funding adaptation measures, and

3) strong support for mitigation endeavors, including the creation of a Center for Renewable Energy, establishing an increase of funds for a national energy efficiency program, further studies into harvesting biofuels, and increasing bicycle lanes for transport.

Although, historically, Chile has not contributed much to the total build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – actually 0.2% of total global GHG emissions for the last year tallied, 2004 – the country would like to see itself as a Latin American forerunner on confronting the issue.  President Bachelet’s new Action Plan not only concretely addresses the country’s increasing climate change concerns, but also demonstrates to the international community that Chile, too, is progressive and environmentally conscientious.

However, even with the formidable growth in the renewable energy sector, and a bit less so in CSR and ‘green business strategy,’ in Chile over the past 3-4 years, there is still an internal conflict and complexity as to how the “green” the country is truly progressing. As Mr. Quiroga pointed out at the seminar, Chile’s growth rate of GHG emissions in the past 10 years has been among the highest on the planet, alongside that of China and India. The main culprits for this have been

1) the booming energy intensive mining sector,

2) an increase in automobile use with economic growth, and,

3) an increased reliance on coal in recent years with disruptions in imported gas supplies from Argentina.

One recent study from the University of Chile actually found that Chile’s national GHG footprint is projected to jump 4.2 times its current amount by 2030.  This conclusion assumes the country continues on its current pace and manner of economic development, and with the increased reliance on new coal plants that are currently in different stages of construction.

So, yes, not only are the effects of climate change real in Chile but so too is a growing movement and public consciousness to reduce people’s and companies’ carbon footprints. In addition to Essbio, Xstrata, and Natura, there are other enterprises in Chile making efforts to reduce GHG emissions in their industrial processes or take action in other local environmental issues.  Yet, it is safe to say that such “climate change conscious” companies are still a small minority here in Chile.  And, even though President Bachelet and the Minister of Energy are making genuine, good-faith efforts to bring the latest solar and geothermal energy technology to Chile such as with partnerships with California and the US Department of Energy, the situation of increasing national GHG emissions reveals a deeper complexity we all need to address:

How can a middle-income economy, such as Chile, afford the latest in clean and renewable energy technology to reduce its climate change footprint, while at the same time, continuing to address more pressing needs of economic and social development?

In other words, a country such as Chile still needs to put its food on the table by mining the copper, whether imported gas or a cheaper “clean” energy solution is currently available; and, if they are not available, a bunch of coal will certainly do.

[photo credit: Cheo!]

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