As the world gathers in Paris for the daunting task of switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy, one small country on the other side of the Atlantic is making that transition look childishly simple and affordable.
In less than 10 years, Uruguay has slashed its carbon footprint without government subsidies or higher consumer costs, according to the National Director of Energy, 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.
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%.
Despite its relatively small population of just 3.4 million, Uruguay has earned a remarkable amount of global kudos in recent years. It enacted groundbreaking marijuana legislation, pioneered stringent tobacco control, and introduced some of the most liberal policies in Latin America on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Now, it is being recognised for progress on de-carbonising its economy. It has been praised by the World Bank and the Economic commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and the WWF last year named Uruguay among its “Green Energy Leaders”, proclaiming: “The country is defining global trends in renewable energy investment.”
Cementing that reputation, Méndez – who also heads climate policy – has gone to this week’s UN talks with one of the world’s most ambitious national pledges: an 88% cut in carbon emissions by 2017 compared with the average for 2009-13.
There are no technological miracles involved, nuclear power is entirely absent from the mix, and no new hydroelectric power has been added for more than two decades. Instead, he says, the key to success is rather dull but encouragingly replicable: clear decision-making, a supportive regulatory environment and a strong partnership between the public and private sector.