Climate action is needed across the Global South, with just transition the central priority. Nature Climate Change spoke to Maisa Rojas, associate professor at the University of Chile, about Chile’s progress in climate governance and the challenges ahead, as well as the opportunities with COP26.
Maisa Rojas is an associate professor at the Department of Geophysics, University of Chile. Dr Rojas also serves as the director of the Center for Climate and Resilience Research and is the coordinator of the Chilean Scientific Advisory Committee on Climate Change and coordinating lead author of the WG1 IPCC 6th Assessment Report.
As a scientist, what was the biggest challenge working on an advisory committee to the government?
As scientists, we have standard methods of producing knowledge, but providing it to decision makers requires translating that knowledge. That process of translation and trust building requires a dialogue that can be difficult sometimes. To be considered a legitimate interlocutor, the scientist must stay independent and provide evidence-based advice that is traceable, along with the values underlying how scientific knowledge is created, verified and, very importantly, communicated. On the other hand, we also need to understand that societies can and do have different values. In this sense, the IPCC is a great example of a body that has mastered that clarity with its robust process for producing its reports and the ‘calibrated uncertainty language’ it developed to do this.
What specific challenges is Chile currently facing with regards to climate action?
When Chile took on the goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, an important and critical part of the strategy was that our forests continue to absorb CO2. However, forest carbon absorption will probably decrease if we continue to inject CO2 into the atmosphere. In addition, these forests are also impacted by climate change itself, through droughts, fires and other extreme weather events. I think this is an important challenge for countries like Chile that put a lot of emphasis on maintaining and even increasing the CO2 sequestration capabilities of their forests.
Does the recent IPCC Working Group 1 (WG1) report suggest that any specific climate action is needed in Chile?
The WG1 report clearly states that climate change is already happening in every region of the world. For Chile, the report should be translated into really urgent advances in adaptation, particularly because the areas where most of the population lives are already and will continue to be affected by extreme weather events like droughts and fires.
One issue to be noted from the WG1 report is that there is much less information on the southern hemisphere, South America in particular, than the northern hemisphere. For example, the report has very limited content on the decrease in snow cover along the Andes, which is predicted to lead to agricultural droughts in Chile. Although we have seen rapid progress in the area of event attribution, there are limited studies conducted in Chile, South America and the whole southern hemisphere.
Speaking of specific action in Chile, what are the recent developments in the climate change agenda?
One recent development is discussion of the climate change law in congress. We hope it will be finished soon so that we have a legally binding instrument for climate actions. Another area is the development of Chile’s long-term strategy, which assigns the carbon budget of different sectors for the coming decades. We are finishing it now and will hand it in to the convention at COP26.
What do you see as the main synergies between development and a net-zero pathway for Chile?
It is absolutely critical to understand and recognize the commitment to net zero as a positive development pathway. This commitment is not a burden, but will instead bring ample benefits for the environment, society and also the economy. In the case of Chile, there are a number of regions that we call sacrifice zones. These regions are dominated by highly polluting industries, and the economic condition in these areas is also bad. This transition towards carbon neutrality needs to be a just transition, which means helping those communities first.
Another important issue that we have is urban air pollution, which affects Chile’s population. Getting to net zero will mitigate the air pollution problem at the same time, which will bring lots of social and health co-benefits. Thus, it’s very important for people to understand those synergies and adopt this decarbonization pathway as soon as possible.
Chile has been witnessing political unrest since 2019. Do you think that this and the desire for societal transformation will impact climate action?
I think it already has. The 2019 social unrest has been channelled into writing a new constitution through a constituent assembly. Over a third of the elected members of that assembly included environmental issues in their campaigns. The Chilean constitution is going to be written with a backdrop of the urgency of addressing climate change. It could be the first constitution that recognizes climate change as a boundary condition after the Paris Agreement.
How does the ongoing pandemic affect the climate agenda in Chile?
I would say that, at first glance, the climate agenda had definitely lost priority and its place on the public agenda until the IPCC report. There is a clear tension between the very short-term urgency of actions related to the pandemic and long-term planning and commitments, which I believe is true not only for Chile but for many other countries as well. However, to be able to sustain this planet and our livelihoods in the long term, we need to address both current and long-term goals at the same time. Otherwise, we will not be able to achieve both sets of goals.
How was your experience as a host country for the last COP?
For me, the most important impression was how COP25 mobilized so much action in Chile. It was in the public discussion, the media, everywhere. As we all know, being able to limit warming to 1.5 °C will require unprecedented transformative changes, which can only happen when we discuss this publicly, and that’s something that I saw in Chile in 2019. In that sense, being a host country for such an important meeting greatly helps to catalyse the willingness to become an active player.
What do you think is the primary focus for Chile at the upcoming COP26?
Ambition, ambition, ambition. Our country has made a commitment to be net-zero by 2050. You always hear people say Chile is a small country, responsible for less than 0.25% of global emissions, and if the big polluters don’t share our commitment, we will have little impact globally. However, if a small country can make that commitment because it sees the potential benefits (social, economic and environmental), then maybe we can use the case of Chile as an example for other small countries to make those commitments and raise ambitions earlier rather than later. Thus, our focus for the upcoming COP26 will be encouraging other small countries to raise their ambitions.
Looking ahead, what is essential to prepare for the Global Stocktake in 2023?
Careful monitoring is essential. All participating countries report their national inventories of greenhouse gases to the UNFCCC. Now, these inventories have different levels of complexity and, more importantly, in some cases, a significant time lag (2–4 years). However, close monitoring of emissions will allow for the ratcheting and ambition loop mechanisms, embedded in the Paris Agreement, to work. Basically, we need to be able to quickly see whether sectors that have an assigned carbon budget are keeping within that budget.
In addition to improving the formal inventories and their update, I think we need a parallel independent system that can provide faster feedback, even if it’s not the most accurate. We saw with the pandemic how we can monitor emissions almost in real time through proxies or indirect measurements. The scientific community or independent scientific advisory councils can provide that information. In summary, we need to monitor climate change much more closely in Chile. This is an important aspect of capacity building. The state needs to provide the infrastructure for long-term monitoring. If you don’t measure and monitor, you are blind and can’t make informed decisions.
Read at Nature Climate Change.