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  • Whitney Pennington Rodgers: Marcelo Mena is an environmentalist

  • and a scholar,

  • and he is the former Minister of Environment for Chile.

  • Welcome, Marcelo.

  • Marcelo Mena: How are you doing, Whitney? Thanks for the invitation.

  • WPR: Perfect. Great.

  • Of course, thank you so much for being with us here today.

  • And you know, before we dive into the future of climate action

  • in Chile and beyond,

  • I think it would be great for us to talk about the present

  • and why Chile really represents a country that is worth thinking about

  • when we talk about climate.

  • You know, recently there have been lots of commendable actions

  • taken by your country when we think about climate.

  • Chile recently committed to net-zero emissions by 2050,

  • the first in the Americas to do this,

  • and that's especially notable when you think about

  • how much of Chile's economy really depends on carbon emissions:

  • mining and agriculture and spaces like that.

  • So could you start a little bit by just talking about

  • how would this even be possible to get to net-zero emissions in 30 years,

  • and what would that mean for Chile?

  • MM: Mm-hmm. It was a very surreal image

  • when we saw Minister Schmidt, the COP25 president,

  • Patricia Espinosa, the UN head on climate change,

  • with masks, delivering this new NDC.

  • The important thing here is, things that are hard to build require consensus,

  • but therefore to get rid of that commitment,

  • you need to have another consensus.

  • This hasn't happened,

  • so the thing is, the reason why Chile has a sort of vision towards mitigation

  • that's ambitious

  • is that we see that there's a big economic benefit.

  • We have seen, we've witnessed,

  • what the renewable energy sector has been able to do for investment,

  • for lowering energy costs.

  • And so therefore to reach this goal,

  • we will inevitably expand to 100 percent renewable,

  • but we'll also transform our industry, which is heavy on fossil fuels,

  • towards low emissions,

  • with the hydrogen economy kicking in,

  • with a recently launched committee that I formed,

  • that Minister Jobet, the Minister of Energy, set up.

  • And also energy efficiency and a lot of capture, carbon capture.

  • We are endowed with a lot of natural capital.

  • Taking care of that natural capital and expanding plantations

  • will allow us to reach net-zero by 2050.

  • WPR: That's great.

  • And now it seems like Chile has such a huge focus, then,

  • in thinking about renewable energy and thinking about climate.

  • But this wasn't always the case.

  • Could you talk a little bit, I guess,

  • about the history of how Chile arrived at this moment?

  • MM: Yeah, so in 2011, 2010,

  • we had an energy discussion

  • with incumbents saying the only way we could solve our energy problems

  • will be through large coal and large hydro in the Patagonia.

  • And that really polarized the discussion.

  • We got together as a community after large protests

  • that triggered a lot of social movements,

  • and we started discussing

  • how we should be able to do our energy going forward.

  • The population, public unrest, set up almost 6,000 megawatts

  • of coal-fired power plants to never be built.

  • And when the government, Michelle Bachelet's government came in,

  • we pulled the plug on the HidroAysén project,

  • which is a big hydro project in the Patagonia.

  • And both of these conditions enabled an opportunity

  • for renewable energy to set in.

  • We put in carbon taxes,

  • we put in environmental regulations,

  • and we set up an energy strategy that we did, building on discussing

  • and looking at the data,

  • in which we thought that the 70 percent renewable energy by 2050

  • was going to be a target that we could agree on.

  • This target has been long surpassed.

  • Now we're thinking of reaching that same goal by 2030.

  • WPR: And what you were saying about social protests,

  • that's something that a lot of people maybe have been following

  • news of what's going in Chile are familiar with recent social protests,

  • and I think I'm curious about how you see that factoring in

  • to climate action moving forward.

  • How might these social protests

  • play a role in what climate action you see?

  • And, really, how is it possible for Chile to be a leader in climate action

  • while also struggling with some of these social issues?

  • MM: Well, the social issues,

  • which are very profound and important to address,

  • caused, for example, COP25 to not be able to be held in Santiago

  • and to go to Madrid.

  • And this also shifted a whole bunch of the discussions and announcements

  • that weren't done

  • and we were expecting to have.

  • But regardless of this,

  • the fact that we have this commitment from the government today

  • shows that there's a resolution to continue forward.

  • But really, the economic model of Chile was brought into question,

  • because the environmental issues, for example, are quite widespread,

  • and many times you have large coal-fired power plants

  • being situated where people live

  • and with higher mortality rates.

  • Somebody who lives where a power plant is installed

  • has twice the rate of death

  • in comparison to other people in Chile.

  • So the model of having many people be impacted for the benefit of few

  • is something that caused and triggered the social unrest.

  • And it goes into the economic model itself

  • of extracting, polluting, impacting communities

  • that may not see the benefits of these economic activities.

  • So while we've done a lot --

  • we've come a long way, for example, in securing a very emblematic agreement

  • to phase out coal-fired power plants --

  • many people feel that this wasn't done fast enough

  • and want this action to be brought faster.

  • WPR: And it sounds like having people be the voice and the engine

  • behind making that happen

  • has really been part of this historical thread

  • with climate action in Chile

  • and seems like it would really lead things moving into the future.

  • MM: No, definitely, and we will continue. Yes, go ahead. Sorry.

  • WPR: Go ahead. Please go ahead. We have a little bit of a delay.

  • MM: Going forward, we're going to be ... Starting out, we are doing well,

  • but I think we need to double down on our commitments.

  • So even though we have ministries involved,

  • we have civil society involved,

  • we need to bring in the mainstream industry.

  • I think, for example, the mining sector has a great opportunity

  • to be the solution for the environmental issues,

  • because we provide the copper, the cobalt, the lithium

  • that are required for solar PV panels, for battery storage.

  • But we need to do this in a clean manner.

  • I think that's the biggest challenge we're going to have

  • in the next 20 years ahead.

  • WPR: And sort of pivoting to the pandemic

  • and to thinking about what's going on right now,

  • the entire world has obviously been devastated by this crisis.

  • What have been some of the unique challenges that Chile has faced

  • during this pandemic?

  • MM: Well, definitely, as anybody,

  • we are always struggling within

  • taking actions today to prevent a deeper impact in the future.

  • And we started off pretty well.

  • We shut off schools.

  • We shut off different cities and had a quarantine.

  • But we gave the wrong signals to people

  • and we didn't have a consistent effort,

  • and this has brought us to have the highest infection rates per capita

  • in the world these days.

  • So this goes to show that -- the same parallels with climate change.

  • We need to take action now to prevent deeper impact later.

  • And I think we need to take the lesson of this

  • to continue with an effort,

  • because one thing is to announce an ambitious NDC.

  • Another thing is to invest and do the regulations that you require

  • to turn this into reality.

  • But there are some things that are interesting.

  • The pollution in Santiago,

  • which is one of the most polluted capitals historically in Latin America,

  • has dropped substantially.

  • The car-related emissions are down almost 80 to 90 percent,

  • which is pretty substantive.

  • And we look at the example of what's going on.

  • Harvard University showed a study

  • in which they showed higher mortality rates for more polluted cities.

  • And this is also the case in Chile.

  • For every microgram of pollution, PM2.5, there is an increase of the fatality rate

  • of nine percent.

  • But the thing is, we could also look back at what we've achieved up to now.

  • Had we not taken measures to clean the air,

  • as we've done in Chile these last 20 years,

  • we would be talking about five times more people would have died from COVID.

  • We have around 800 people that have died due to COVID directly,

  • but this would have been much higher had we not taken action.

  • And in fact, due to the lower pollution,

  • if we estimate and predict this to the rest of the year,

  • we will have saved as many lives reducing the pollution

  • as we have lost in COVID,

  • showing that there's a pandemic that we also need to address,

  • which is the crisis on air pollution that suffocates many cities in the world.

  • WPR: And it seems like that's probably something that we're seeing

  • in other areas around the world.

  • As you're suggesting, air pollution is a problem everywhere.

  • And I'm curious also

  • how these challenges that you've mentioned, and maybe others,

  • might hinder or help

  • some of this progress that you're hoping to make

  • towards climate action.

  • How do you see this factoring in to some of the decisions

  • that might be made going forward in Chile and beyond?

  • MM: OK, so we have a higher fatality rate and more polluted cities,

  • and we have a climate action to carry out.

  • This is going to be a decisive decade,

  • in which we need to lay the groundwork for our lower-emissions strategies.

  • So whatever we do today cannot lock us in to an incompatible climate future.

  • We need to lay the groundwork for this low-emissions transition.

  • So therefore, our green recovery efforts need to be done,

  • as Kristalina [Georgieva] spoke last week,

  • has to be related to a green recovery that creates jobs immediately,

  • that addresses the poverty issues that we have on energy

  • today in southern Chile,

  • and we need to use this for expanding renewable energy

  • and expanding the successful efforts that we've done on electromobility.

  • Today, we have the largest fleet of electric buses outside of China,

  • but we could actually make this go even bigger,

  • because we've seen that the reductions in cost have been almost 70 percent

  • in comparison to diesel buses.

  • So we should use this opportunity to expand.

  • And multiple stakeholders are working.

  • We're working together to call on the government

  • to do a green recovery,

  • to use the green bonds that we've already issued

  • and under which we've gotten really low rates for interest rates,

  • to do and fund cleaning the air,

  • cleaning the transportation

  • and laying the groundwork for a cleaner tomorrow in the mining sector,

  • which is our biggest challenge going forward.

  • WPR: And then as far as the way that you think about

  • and conceptualize climate action,

  • have you personally had any changes to your thinking,

  • just as a result of what you're seeing through this pandemic?

  • MM: Yeah, I think we start looking around,

  • everybody had to struggle and find that we could do much more with less,

  • and keeping a full economy

  • that requires you to buy an extra t-shirt that you don't need,

  • the fact that we're using three times more clothes

  • than we were maybe 20 years ago

  • shows that we are blowing up an economy that requires us

  • to destroy the environment, in a way,

  • to continue forward.

  • And the food system is going to be probably our biggest challenge,

  • and even though I've been working with electric buses and electromobility

  • and just the more conventional mitigation,

  • I think our biggest cultural challenge

  • will be to talk about how our food decisions

  • impact the way that we will have a future.

  • "Nature" just put out a report

  • that showed something that when we were in the government, we had talked about.

  • When Chile was good in soccer,

  • we started going deeper into the wintertime contests,

  • and we started winning games.

  • But to win those games, we started doing a lot of barbecues,

  • and the paper that came out showed something that,

  • when we explained this to people,

  • that you guys are messing up the air with barbecues,

  • people thought we were crazy.