Policy brief | Climate change in Chile: the need to diversify nature-based solutions

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  • The national strategy to address climate change relies on land use, land-use change, and forestry to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Scientific evidence has shown that, in this sector, the native forest is a better carbon sink than forest plantations.

By Jorge Hoyos-Santillan1,2,3,4, Alejandro Miranda2,3,4,5, Antonio Lara2,6,7, Armando Sepúlveda-Jauregui2,3,4, Carlos Zamorano-Elgueta2,8, Susana Gómez-González2,9,10, Felipe Vásquez-Lavín2,11,12, René Garreaud2,13 and Maisa Rojas2,13

Concern about the impacts of climate change in the country has led Chile to assume international commitments that aim to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and thus achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

These commitments include a public-private investment of US$71 billion in the energy sector, responsible for 78% of national emissions. This strategy aims to: (I) gradually eliminate coal-fired power plants, (II) increase the use of renewable energies for electricity generation, (III) make energy production, transmission, and consumption more efficient, (IV) enhance electromobility and (V) promote the construction of energy-efficient homes.

This policy would reduce the energy sector’s annual emissions if implemented correctly. What remains could be absorbed by the land use, land-use change, and forestry sector (LULUCF).

Chile’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) includes the LULUCF sector by the following strategies: (I) sustainable management of 200 000 hectares of native forest, (II) add 100 000 hectares of forest plantations, (III) afforest 100 000 hectares (70% native forest and 30% non-native species), and (IV) reduce degradation and deforestation caused by the forestry sector. That would contribute to the current carbon sink capacity of the LULUCF sector. It also includes the restoration of one million hectares, both with native forest and industrial plantations. However, using plantations as a mechanism to achieve carbon neutrality has been highly criticized by scientists since:

    1. They are associated with increased demand for water in areas affected by drought.
    2. They generate negative impacts on biodiversity.
    3. They fragment the landscape.
    4. They generate socio-cultural conflicts.
    5. They increase the possibility of fires.

Within the LULUCF sector, only the native forest would act entirely as a carbon sink since the 3.1 million hectares of forest plantations, composed mainly of pines (61%) and eucalyptus (33%), have acted as consistently as an emitting source (see Figure). That is because the carbon they naturally absorb returns to the atmosphere when trees are cut down every 12 to 18 years to produce goods or when they burn on forest fires or by the use of firewood.

Due to this, including forest plantations in the NDC does not increase the carbon absorption capacity of the LULUCF sector but would be an additional burden on native forests, representing a setback on the path to national carbon neutrality.

Figure: Greenhouse gases (GHG) captured and emitted by the LULUCF sector are shown. The top bars (orange and dark green) are emissions. As can be seen, industrial plantations (dark orange) release more carbon than native forests (dark green). The lower bars (orange and light green) are the catches. Native forest (light green) captures much more GHG than industrial plantations (light orange). The red box highlights the year 2017 when the mega-fire occurred. GHG emissions from plantations far exceeded the capture. Source: Modified from Hoyos et al. (2021).

During the last decade, the increase of forest fires transformed forest plantations into carbon emitters. Fires are more common in industrial plantations than in native forests due to factors such as: (I) Greater human activity in these areas and (II) because their species are flammable and spread homogeneously in the territories. For example, a mega-fire in 2017 burned 570 000 hectares, which released a carbon equivalent corresponding to 70% of the total emitted by the energy, industry, and agriculture sectors combined in 2016. Thus, these twenty days of mega-fire erased more than ten years of mitigation projected by Chile’s NDC.

Along with this, the incentives for the reforestation of native forests have not been sufficient. For example, between 1974 and 2013, the government granted US$561 million to establish 1.25 million hectares of forest plantations through Decree 701. In addition, between 2009 and 2017, this Decree had US$ 120 million to promote plantations while Law 20,283 on Recovery of the Native Forest and Forest Development only had a US$66 million budget. In addition, the process to obtain financing through Law 20 283 is complex and economically uncompetitive, so less than a quarter of its budget has been used since its inception, and 84% of the subsidies have been used for wood production and only 2% to preserve native forests. That has caused losing 13,000 hectares of native forest in central Chile in the last three decades.

Recommendations

Taking into account all of the above, we recommend:

  • First, stop considering industrial plantations as part of Chile’s climate actions and promote native forests as the principal strategy.
  • Implement economically competitive incentives to promote the restoration of the native forest, which is sufficient to offset the emissions associated with forest fires, deforestation, and the mortality of trees induced by drought and forestry activities.
  • Allocate these resources considering a science-based approach, which incorporates climate change’s future risks and impacts.
  • Develop forest fire prediction models to predict their occurrence and intensity and the number of carbon stocks at risk.
  • Diversify carbon sinks through Nature-Based Solutions (NBS). That means considering other alternatives, such as peatlands, coastal wetlands, and oceans.
  • These ecosystems need to be protected by public policies.

1 School of Biosciences, U. of Nottingham; 2 Centro de Ciencia del Clima y la Resiliencia (CR)2; 3 Red de Investigación en Ambientes Extremos, U. de La Frontera; 4 Laboratorio de Biogeoquímica Ambiental en Ecosistemas Extremos, U. de Magallanes; 5 Laboratorio de Ecología del Paisaje y Conservación, U. de La Frontera; 6 Instituto de Conservación, Biodiversidad y Territorio, U. Austral; 7 Fundación Centro de los Bosques Nativos-FORECOS; 8 Departamento de Ciencias Naturales y Tecnología, U. de Aysén; 9 Departamento de Biología-IVAGRO, U. de Cádiz; 10 Centro del Fuego y Resiliencia de Socioecosistemas (FireSES), U. Austral; 11 Facultad de Economía y Negocios, U. del Desarrollo; 12 Centro de Ecología Aplicada y Sustentabilidad (CAPES), PUC; 13 Departamento de Geofísica, U. de Chile.

References

Hoyos-Santillan, J., Miranda, A., Lara, A., Sepulveda-Jauregui, A., Zamorano-Elgueta, C., Gómez-González, S., Vásquez-Lavín, F., Garreaud, R. & Rojas, M. (2021). Diversifying Chile’s climate action away from industrial plantations. Environmental Science & Policy, 124, 85-89.