What challenges face Chile’s new ‘environmentalist’ government?

President-elect Gabriel Boric’s new government must address issues of decarbonisation, water crisis and lithium nationalisation, all while rewriting the country’s constitution
<p>Chile&#8217;s president-elect Gabriel Boric speaks in Santiago, the day after his election victory in December 2021. The young left-wing candidate made environmental issues central to his campaign, and has since chosen a cabinet with strong environmental credentials, but faces challenges in implementing his progressive programme. (Image: ZUMA Press / Alamy)</p>

Chile’s president-elect Gabriel Boric speaks in Santiago, the day after his election victory in December 2021. The young left-wing candidate made environmental issues central to his campaign, and has since chosen a cabinet with strong environmental credentials, but faces challenges in implementing his progressive programme. (Image: ZUMA Press / Alamy)

As he stood in front of the crowd that came out to celebrate his victory, Gabriel Boric, Chile’s youngest ever president-elect, was categorical: “To destroy the world is to destroy ourselves. We don’t want any more sacrifice zones, we don’t want any more projects that destroy our Chile, that destroy communities. In our government, it will be a priority to avoid this destruction and to have development that is compatible with the environment.”

Boric will become Chile’s new president on 11 March, at just 36 years old, having defeated his far-right challenger, José Antonio Kast, in December’s historic vote. A native of Chilean Patagonia, Boric became known as one of the leaders of the country’s student protests of 2011. Eleven years later, he will succeed Sebastián Piñera – the same man he protested against in the streets at the beginning of the last decade.

A woman celebrates in the street with the Chilean flag in her hand.
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The president-elect, who is currently finishing his second term as a congressman, made environmental and climate change issues central to his campaign. He pledged to create “Chile’s first green government”, and will arrive in office with a number of challenges to prove these credentials. In the first few months, he will have to implement a new law on climate change, reform the law governing water use and tackle a mega-drought so severe that it has even cast doubt on the country’s commitment to close its coal-fired power plants.

Elsewhere, there are other significant commitments to fulfil: to put an end to Chile’s “sacrifice zones”, areas of the country impaired by chronic socio-environmental and economic problems; to create a state company to regulate the extraction and use of lithium; and to promote a new model of sustainable development.

All this comes amid a broader national debate over the creation of the country’s new constitution. By the end of this year, the country will have to vote on whether to approve the new constitution, which is currently being drafted. The inclusion of elements such as plurinationalism, which will recognise indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination, and the recognition of the rights of nature are already on the horizon.

Drought and carbon neutrality

“By declaring that he wants to be the first environmentalist government, Boric is showing that the times when economic development, well-being and progress were antagonistic to environmental protection and human rights are long gone, that it is not possible to go backwards on climate action, and that he intends to align all his ministers with this view,” says Valentina Durán, director of the Environmental Law Research Center at the Universidad de Chile.

A broad, cross-ministry environmentalism was one of the most striking attributes of Gabriel Boric’s recently selected cabinet of 24 ministers, 14 of whom are women.

One of the strongest names is that of Maisa Rojas, a renowned climate scientist who will take over as the new Minister for the Environment. “My role is to make this the country’s first environmentalist government,” she said in one of her first interviews since her appointment.

A worker cleaning a beach
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Rojas has worked on several reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), including as lead author and coordinator of the first part of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), the largest work on climate science to date.

Although politics is a new world for her, she has been involved in a number of different capacities for some time. She was appointed by the outgoing government of Sebastián Piñera as a coordinator of the scientific advisory committee for COP25, which was originally due to be hosted in Chile in 2019. Just a few months ago, she was invited by the Constitutional Convention – the body in charge of drafting the country’s new constitution – to present the findings of the latest IPCC report, a key presentation for the subsequent approval of the “climate emergency” by the authority.

Rojas has already defined her priorities: implementing the new law on climate change (currently in its final stages of legislative procedure), promoting the newly established service for biodiversity and protected areas, and “working for the sacrifice zones”.

In her previous role as director of the Centre for Climate and Resilience Research (CR2), the new minister was an active participant in the legislative debate for the climate law, which establishes Chile’s commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050. “If you ask me what is the most important action we should take, it is to have this law,” she said during one of the legislative sessions.

Rojas also identified drought as one of the main challenges, acknowledging that it is an issue she will have to tackle in collaboration with other ministries, as decisions regarding water in Chile currently cross dozens of public bodies.

For Marcelo Mena, himself a former Minister for the Environment (2017–2018), “water scarcity must be tackled through inter-sectoral coordination. It is an important short-term issue, because socio-environmental conflicts associated with water are going to be increasingly frequent.”

The energy transition

The ongoing, multi-decade mega-drought in Chile has come to threaten the country’s decarbonisation commitments. The Coordinador Eléctrico Nacional, the body that oversees the country’s electricity system, has suggested postponing the closure of the Bocamina 2 and Ventanas 2 coal-fired power plants by one year, on the basis of avoiding a supply crisis due to the drought-driven drop in output at hydroelectric plants.

The person who will have to face these challenges and lead the decarbonisation agenda is the academic Claudio Huepe, who is leaving the Centre for Sustainable Energy and Development at Diego Portales University to take over as energy minister. Huepe is a member of Convergencia Social (Gabriel Boric’s party) and has been part of the president-elect’s campaign since its early days.

A boy with binoculars in the middle of a desert in Chile
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For Ana Lia Rojas, executive director of the Chilean Association of Renewable Energies (ACERA), Huepe’s immediate challenge as minister will be to confront the country’s stretched electricity system. But beyond that, she says that what this government decides over the next four years will form “the basis of the regulatory design that will allow us to dedicate the next 25 years to moving towards a carbon-neutral economy and a 100% renewable electricity sector”.

Although Chile has been a pioneer in renewable energy (wind and solar accounted for 21% of all energy generated in 2021), the industry is concerned about the high level of wastage, as the amount of renewable energy that, due to a lack of infrastructure and operational issues, does not make it onto the grid to be consumed. In January of this year alone, 160 GWh were “lost”, more than the total registered in all of 2019.

In any case, renewable energy companies may look favourably on the new government and its commitment to decarbonisation. “We agree that there are many ways of decarbonisation, it is not just about removing coal and adding renewables, but it is nourished by many lines of action that are correctly contained in President Boric’s programme,” says Rojas.

The new government’s energy programme recognises the construction of transmission lines and supply plants as key to the energy transition, in addition to establishing forums in different parts of the country to discuss “just transitions”.

Transport and the economy

Other names of ministers also give a glimpse of the government’s intended environmental character.

Juan Carlos Muñoz will be at the Ministry of Transportation and Communications. With a PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering, Muñoz was previously the director of the Centre for Sustainable Urban Development (CEDEUS). A keen cycling advocate, he has promoted a free public transport system.

One of his campaign promises was a “double-zero” transport agenda: an electric, emission-free, and fare-free public transport system for citizens, to be launched as a pilot in the southern city of Valdivia. Also on the agenda is an increase in fuel tax for industries and big polluters.

At the finance ministry, the renowned economist Mario Marcel will take control. He was president of the Central Bank of Chile from 2016 until this year and has had a long career in international organisations and working on financial policies, including under several previous Chilean governments.

In an interview, Marcel said: “We have to start thinking about sustainable production, which is more competitive and which is becoming more evident every day. The whole world values the reduction of carbon emissions and the protection of the environment. Today, selling green products is more successful than selling grey products.”

As president of the Central Bank, Marcel promoted the incorporation of climate change risks into financial stability analyses. Moreover, during COP26, the new minister led the Central Bank in joining an international alliance to “analyse and quantify financial stability risks”. And in November last year, Marcel met with Professor Partha Dasgupta, a leading expert on the economics of biodiversity and the incorporation of ecosystem services into economic analysis.

The role of mining

Marcela Hernando, a doctor and member of Chile’s parliament, will take over the mining ministry. Hernando will lead two important agendas that could mark a new path in Chile’s mining policy: the creation of taxes on copper mining, which is expected to raise 1% of GDP, and the creation of a nationalised lithium company. This latter action aims to “develop a new national industry for this strategic resource, with the involvement of communities and adding value to production,” according to a government strategy document.

A worker with a wheelbarrow full of salt in a lithium deposit.
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Lithium was the first point of conflict between the incoming and outgoing governments. In October, a call for tenders for the exploration and production of 400,000 tonnes of lithium was published. Boric and Piñera’s mining teams met on the issue, with the incoming administration formally requesting a postponement of the tender, in order to incorporate criteria of community payback and investment in research and development. Although equivalent to 4.4% of the country’s total lithium reserves, the tender actually represents 25% of the areas available to be exploited, according to Willy Kracht, the new undersecretary of mining.

The Court of Appeals in Copiapó, a northern province where reserves are located, ordered a freeze on the tender following an appeal for protection lodged by local communities. This was after it had already been assigned to the subsidiary of the Chinese multinational BYD and the local company Servicios y Operaciones Mineras del Norte.

The Escazú Agreement

The new foreign minister will be Antonia Urrejola, former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which was immediately seen as a sign from Boric that his left-wing government will not sit comfortably with others in the region, such as Nicaragua and Venezuela.

While at the IACHR, Urrejola defended the need for countries to join the Escazú Agreement, as a way to strengthen environmental public policies in the face of the climate emergency. Meanwhile Boric pledged during his campaign to adhere to the agreement and send it to congress for ratification ahead of this year’s Earth Day, on 22 April. Maisa Rojas also confirmed this, assuring that “the signing of Escazú is the first thing that will be done”.

The first conference of the parties (COP) on the agreement, which will bring together the signatory countries, will be held in Santiago, at the headquarters of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) between 20 and 22 April.