EDITORIAL

An even bigger climate problem

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Science  29 Nov 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6469, pp. 1053
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba3075

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PHOTO: FELIPE BECERRA/MINISTERIO DEL MEDIO AMBIENTE

Holding a major international summit on climate change against a backdrop of civil discontent like the kind that has rocked Chile might have given the world the impression that issues like clean energy can be addressed without also confronting problems of social justice. So last month, in the midst of massive protests on cost-of-living burdens and other inequalities, Chile withdrew as the host nation of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25). Instead, COP25 will convene next week in Madrid, Spain. Despite this decision, Chile's commitment to maintain its presidency of COP25 through next year hopefully signals a turning point in climate action—one that further steers Chile and the rest of the global community to recognize connections between social and climate crises, and to support climate policies that do not leave anyone behind.

This year, Chile made bold moves to limit climate change. In September, it launched a broad alliance that encourages nations, regions, cities, businesses, and investors to accelerate measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce vulnerability to the effects of climate change. And although Chile contributes a mere 0.25% to global carbon emissions, its proposed nationally determined contribution (NDC)—the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that are at the heart of the international Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise—was formulated with Chile's own national agenda of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.

Achieving a net zero carbon footprint will require one of the fastest coal shutdowns of any country because the fuel accounts for about 40% of Chile's electricity generation. The Mitigation Plan for the Energy Sector is aligned with goals set in Chile's 2050 energy strategy, which has a renewable energy generation target of at least 60% by 2035. Thanks to an Electromobility Strategy, Chile operates the largest electric urban public bus fleet in Latin America, with plans to achieve 100% electric public transport by 2050. These are examples of necessary short-term actions to limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C. In the meantime, a Climate Change Law proposal is under discussion. It is the first Latin American law that formulated a carbon neutrality goal in conjunction with the scientific community. It also proposes a Scientific Council and a Civil Society Council to expand input into policies and a Regional Committee on Climate Change to develop local climate action plans.

But dealing with climate change will require not only technical and practical transformations in sectors like energy and transportation, but also social transformations. Climate change amplifies social inequities. Sea level rise, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires, among other hazards, affect food, water, air, land, energy, and other securities. Some groups are affected more than others, depending on where they live and their ability to cope. What is needed are “green transitions” that support people who live in poverty and in indigenous communities with limited resources, as well as those in urban communities struck by higher energy costs and air and water pollution.

How can climate action advance a more sustainable, fairer, and united Chile? Goals, technologies, and policies surrounding climate must be discussed in the context of their impacts across the income distribution. For example, in Chile's updated NDC, a new aggressive goal to reduce up to 30% of carbon emissions by 2030 was created to address the huge pollution problem associated with cities mainly in the south. The complete coal phase-out program was agreed upon in a roundtable where the government, private sector, local authorities, and civil representatives discussed a transition process that is sensitive to the health and employment of those affected most. And the inclusion of the water security was given priority to address a 10-year drought that has afflicted 70% of the population.

Although the civil protests in Chile contributed to the decision to hold the climate conference elsewhere, the result will hopefully send an important message: Nations cannot address development and prosperity without addressing climate change, and vice versa. Hopefully, the social crisis in Chile will be brought to bear on COP25 in Madrid and the way countries make decisions, including those related to a low-carbon and more resilient economy.

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