In less than 10 years, Uruguay has slashed its carbon footprint without government subsidies or higher consumer costs, according to the country’s head of climate change policy, Ramón Méndez.
In fact, he says that now that renewables provide 94.5% of the country’s electricity, prices are lower than in the past relative to inflation. There are also fewer power cuts because a diverse energy mix means greater resilience to droughts.
It was a very different story just 15 years ago. Back at the turn of the century oil accounted for 27% of Uruguay’s imports and a new pipeline was just about to begin supplying gas from Argentina.
Now the biggest item on import balance sheet is wind turbines, which fill the country’s ports on their way to installation.
Biomass and solar power have also been ramped up. Adding to existing hydropower, this means that renewables now account for 55% of the country’s overall energy mix (including transport fuel) compared with a global average share of 12%.In terms of progressive ideas, Uruguay has always punched above its weight. It introduced a free, universal public education system in 1878, 40 years before the United States. Eventually, Uruguay blossomed into one of the most robust social welfare states in Latin America, with the region’s lowest income inequality. It was the first country in the world to legalize recreational marijuana and the second in the region to legalize gay marriage, after Argentina.
This small country of 3.5 million people has also burnished its environmental credentials, conserving native forests, protecting biodiverse areas and striving to be carbon neutral by 2030. Few countries have demonstrated a comparable commitment to reducing emissions. Beyond lowering emissions of methane, a harmful greenhouse gas, from livestock and increasing forest coverage to promote greater carbon sequestration, Uruguay has radically transformed its energy grid.
Since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, hailed as the first major international treaty on climate change, Uruguay’s aggregate renewable energy supply has grown by 93 percent. According to the International Energy Agency, only Denmark, Lithuania and Luxembourg are more reliant on wind and solar power. Between 2008 and 2017, Uruguay went from having virtually no wind power to nearly 4,000 megawatts of installed capacity. Emissions have fallen roughly 20 percent from their 2012 peak.
Uruguay’s successful shift to renewables was spearheaded by the leftist Broad Front coalition—the Frente Amplio, or FA—which controlled the national government for 15 years until last month. A new center-right president, Luis Lacalle Pou of the National Party, was sworn in on March 1 after narrowly winning election in November. But Lacalle Pou’s government is unlikely to drastically reverse Uruguay’s shift to renewable energy. By building a broad consensus with a wide range of national and international stakeholders, the FA adopted an inclusive strategy for energy transformation that will be difficult to undo. Its playbook offers a model response for other countries seeking to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.
Uruguay’s shift to renewables dates back to a serious drought, which began in 1997 and lasted until 2007, and cut existing hydroelectric generation in half. The government tried to cover that sharp decline in power supply by increasing oil imports from Argentina, but at a steep price. In 2006, Uruguay imported 75 percent of its energy needs. Growing energy demands triggered blackouts, and carbon emissions skyrocketed.
Grant Burrier is an associate professor of politics and history at Curry College in Massachusetts. He writes extensively on Latin American politics, political economy and environmental policy.