If I go back to my childhood in Chile, I remember two distinct moments in which environmental issues became important to me.
I was about seven years old, and I was on the beach. I saw drops of a black substance that stuck to my skin when I touched it. It was oil. My mother had to scrub it off and it hurt me a lot. There was also a penguin that had been covered in oil. If it hurt me to have that petroleum scrubbed off my skin, I could only imagine what it would mean for somebody to be covered in it.
Later, I went to the US with my father, who was doing a PhD there. When we returned to Chile, I could see many things that could be improved. There was a stream near my house, polluted with wastewater, trash and dead animals. There were illegal dumpsites, trash burning. I would go to school and there was bad air pollution from a copper smelting plant – we had to close our windows and go indoors to escape it.
Supporting social change
So, from a young age, I wanted to be somebody who would support social change. I was going to join a political party; Chile had just recovered its democracy. But my father wanted me to do something else. He said: “Don’t get into politics. All my friends were murdered during the Pinochet regime.”
I thought, “How could anybody be opposed to improving the environment?” Many years later, I became a politician, serving in the government as Environment Minister, so I’ve seen it’s not so easy. But when I was 14, I made this decision and began training myself to make the biggest impact I could. I was interested in issues such as water treatment and air pollution.
I studied at the University of Iowa, where my professor was very supportive. He helped me look at ways to improve things. We did multiple energy audits for the university. Ultimately, these helped shape the university’s energy efficiency programme and saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Air quality forecasting
After that, I started a journey that lasted around 10 years to develop air quality forecasting models. We started proving to the authorities that if you took measures two or three days in advance, you could actually prevent air pollution incidents from occurring.
When I was working as Environment Minister in the Chilean government in 2017-2018, we deployed these models in Chile and prevented dozens of poor air quality episodes. Today, if you look at the environmental impacts and the health impacts in Chile, around 500,000 emergency room visits are prevented in places where we’ve taken measures, versus the ones where we have not. This is a distinct result from the actions that we did.
Building on positive wins
I’m an optimist. I believe that we always need to claim our wins. There are many times in the fight against climate change when things are not going to look that positive. The political landscape is always going to be difficult. So, we always need to really build on the positive wins.
Having worked in government, trying to get people together and make coalitions, I know that sometimes you don’t have the tools or funding to really make it happen. For example, there have been efforts to tackle methane emissions by using satellites to build accountability. A lot of these efforts were uncoordinated and couldn’t follow through in a way that would reduce emissions.
So, I’m really proud of the work that we’ve been doing recently with the International Methane Emissions Observatory for UNEP. They’re designing a methane alert and response system (MARS), that will be the cornerstone of tackling methane emissions from energy systems.
Monitoring landfills from space
At the same time, we’ve really helped bring food systems and landfills into the mix. Some research that came out a couple of months ago , highlighted that landfills are the largest single point sources of methane emissions globally. Since then, we’ve been able to bring together a coalition of different providers. These include Carbon Mapper, which has put together a 10,000-landfill monitoring system using NASA’s EMIT instrument from the International Space Station.
Having this information about a global problem allows us to work with different players to tackle it. We’re working with NGOs and mayors from cities in India, Africa and Latin America. They can see the benefits of tackling emissions from landfills for their communities. That’s something the Global Methane Alliance has been able to stitch together. We’ve been able to bring together multiple efforts into a coordinated effort to add value.
Recognising progress made
I think at the end of every COP everybody says: “We haven’t done enough; world leaders haven’t really done anything.” But today, roughly 90% to 95% of global GDP is committed to net zero. Around 70% of methane emissions occur in jurisdictions that have some sort of methane mitigation commitment.
We have a lot to do. We haven’t won the fight. But we must recognise that progress has been made and we need to claim our wins. Because if we don’t, we’re not going to have the energy that we need to do more.
In every year we’ve done more than ever. And in every year to come we’ll have to do much more than before. That’s what we have to do together. That’s what the Methane Hub is all about.
Marcelo Mena is the CEO of the Global Methane Hub, a Professor of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso and the former Environment Minister for Chile under the Michelle Bachelet government (2014 to 2018). Previously he was Practice Manager at the World Bank, where he led the team that created the Coalition of Finance Ministers for Climate Action. Mena is a biochemical engineer and holds MS and Ph.D. degrees in Environmental Engineering (The University of Iowa), focusing his research on estimating the externalities of biofuels, power generation, transportation, and residential heating. He used his research to advocate for renewable energy and push for more stringent regulations to stop dirty coal power generation in Chile. He has received awards from UNEP, National Geographic, Oceans Unite, NASA and the EPA, as well as fellowships from MIT and the Fulbright Commission.
The IKEA Foundation is a part of the Global Methane Hub, a major philanthropic initiative to support nations that have pledged to rapidly reduce their methane emissions. Methane is the biggest cause of climate change after carbon dioxide. Reducing methane emissions quickly is an effective way to slow global warming, which is why over 110 countries have signed a Global Methane Pledge. The Global Methane Hub is a coalition of 17 philanthropies, that has committed $300 million to support countries that have signed the pledge to cut methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030 and 50% by 2040. It will provide expertise, financial resources, technical support and tools to monitor progress towards the targets.
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