ECPA Tackling Environmental Pollution, Climate Change in Chile

Joshua Klein, Intern, U.S. Embassy in Santiago

On March 17, I had the pleasure of accompanying Dr. Mariapaz Gutierrez, Senior Fellow at the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) and professor of Architecture at the University of California-Berkeley, on several meetings during her visit to Santiago, Chile. Dr. Gutierrez specializes in developing sustainable designs for buildings and urban infrastructure.  

As part of her work with ECPA, Dr. Gutierrez travels to countries in the Western Hemisphere to consult with governmental institutions and organizations about sustainable energy and building practices. As an intern for the Economic/Political Section at the U.S. Embassy in Santiago with an interest in sustainable urban policy, I was able to witness firsthand how international collaboration is an invaluable tool to share knowledge in order to tackle environmental pollution and climate change and promote sustainable energy practices.

The Chilean Ministry of Energy, Ministry of Agriculture, and the National Forestry Corporation have decided to collaborate to come up with new solutions to generate energy, positively impact climate change, and protect natural ecosystems. As of 2013, 28% of Chile’s energy matrix is supplied by the combustion of biomass, mostly firewood. 

While combustion of biomass positively provides a locally producible renewable energy source, it contributes to problems of deforestation and atmospheric contamination, largely due to the inefficient burning techniques of wet wood. In a meeting with the National Forestry Corporation and the Ministry of Energy, Dr. Gutierrez, acknowledging that the use of firewood is also a deeply ingrained cultural practice in the south of Chile, offered ideas about what other alternative energy sources could be used in conjunction with firewood in order to generate energy while avoiding environmental damage.

Chile suffers from high rates of pollution: in a country of 17 million, approximately 10 million Chileans live in areas with an above average concentration of fine particulate matter contaminants in the air. The majority of this pollution is caused by burning firewood to heat residences, especially in Chile’s southern regions. In these areas, residences often burn wet firewood in inefficient heating stoves that have the potential to contaminate up to 3,000 times more than efficient ones. Furthermore, many of the houses that utilize wood-burning are poorly constructed and lack the proper insulation to trap heat, requiring even more wood and thus contributing to more air pollution. 

In light of Chile’s current air pollution levels, the Ministry of Environment has worked to enact programs that will have an immediate effect on air quality, especially in Chile’s most polluted cities. Stove replacement programs, re-insulating poorly insulated houses to meet regulations, and regulating the largely informal firewood industry are just a few of the measures that the Ministry of Environment has begun to enact. 

While lauding the Ministry of Environment’s current projects, Dr. Gutierrez asserted that Chile’s air pollution issues required long term solutions as well as short term ones, and offered several ideas on how to generate energy in the long term, highlighting the success of solar panels in other rural communities around the world. Dr. Gutierrez also emphasized the benefits of collaborating with other international organizations, suggesting that the Chilean government could possibly work UC Berkeley’s research and development groups to design and develop prototypes to reduce emissions.

Dr. Gutierrez’s expertise brought invaluable insight to Chilean policymakers and further strengthened ECPA’s commitment to work with Chile on these issues, which not only have a national impact, but a global one.