The path to transforming Santiago, Antofagasta, and Concepción into circular cities

Published on Tuesday, 23 August 2022

Let's start with an example: food

We rarely ask ourselves where our food comes from and how far a piece of fruit or a vegetable has to travel to reach the grocery store closest to our home. But the fact is that we should pay more attention to this: the amount of data available on the food production chain is staggering.

Almost 22% of global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions come from the food industry, which has inefficient and unsustainable processes despite advances in knowledge and new technologies. For example, in land and water management, there are high levels of product waste and biodiversity loss along the supply chain. Moreover, the distances between production areas and the main consumption centers, i.e., cities, are increasing. The study "Cities and Circular Economy for Food" (2019) by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation indicates that by 2050, cities will consume 80% of all produced food. Therefore, cities face the major challenge of rethinking their food systems and building resilience in the face of climate emergencies.

How, then, can this industry be made sustainable?

According to the FAO, more than 30% of food for human consumption ends up as waste. This statistic needs to be urgently addressed, especially in countries that produce a low proportion of the food they consume. Such is the case in the Antofagasta region, where mining is the predominant industry. The region produces less than 5% of the food required to feed its population, leading to transport services hauling goods for hundreds or thousands of kilometers.

"This causes the cost of food to be considerably higher in this region than in the rest of the country, threatening the food security for the population, especially for the most vulnerable. It is imperative to make efficient use of food resources," said María José Larrazábal, director of the Valora Alimentos project. Valora Alimentos was created in the second half of 2020 by a group of academics and professionals from various fields at the Universidad de Antofagasta to promote food waste reduction in different commercial areas of the region.

“We had to leave the lab and academic meetings behind to learn about the region's reality, integrate the work done by multidisciplinary teams, and coordinate the courses of action with public and private organizations. We have seen a very encouraging response from different people and organizations, from tenants to social organizations, the gastronomic sector, students and university authorities, and companies. This is an issue that is of interest to everyone and will require the effort of everyone to make progress.”

– María José Larrazábal, director of the Valora Alimentos project

Joining Valora Alimentos are Corfo (state development agency), the Chilean Agency for Food Safety (Achipia), the Antofagasta regional agriculture ministry (Seremi de Agricultura), the Antofagasta regional environment ministry (Seremi de Medio Ambiente). Also participating are the two main fresh produce distribution centers: the Vega Central in Antofagasta and the Calama Agricultural Terminal. The results include a specific management model for these centers, which will allow the recovery of food fit for consumption, including a book with recipes based on recovered food aimed at the whole population and two opportunity banks for entrepreneurs. Business ideas based on a circular economy propose to generate food and non-food products in the region. Results of the project are currently published. The objective is to reduce waste regionally and nationwide.

This initiative has enormous value and exemplifies how to transform the linear logic of our economic model in the food sector. However, it is only the tip of the iceberg in the circular economy.

How do we transform cities into circular ones?

Food is not the only industry with consumers concentrated in cities. In July 2022, Enel Chile's Circular Economy team published the study "Circular Cities for Chile," which showed that 54% of GHG emissions come from three sectors. Food production accounts for 22%, followed by energy use in transport and buildings (20%). The latter is mainly due to burning fossil fuels within the city - transportation, for example - or electricity generation shipments outside city limits. The third sector is the production chain of four construction materials constantly in demand in cities (cement, steel, plastic, and aluminum), contributing 12%.

“This study is unprecedented in Chile. Its objective is to provide a diagnosis and identify circularity opportunities for three specific cities in the country: Antofagasta, Santiago, and Concepción. And since the circular economy is an extensive and complex topic, it was important to hone our analysis. So, we chose these three sectors - food, energy in transport and housing, and construction - which together account for more than half of the world's GHG emissions.”

– Natalia Correa, head of Circular Economy at Enel Chile

The study consolidated publicly available data that made it possible to make a preliminary estimate of input (materials and energy) and output (emissions and waste) flows and structured them by sector and by city. We identified urban indicators for each city to complement the analysis. The study allows us to reflect on the needs and opportunities for a circular economy in each city to fit their particular situation and factors.

"To understand cities, it is necessary to become familiar with the 'urban metabolism' concept, which asserts that urban centers, like living organisms, consume, metabolize, discard and breathe. In a linear metabolism, there is an external input of material and energy resources, which are then largely wasted and displaced. The idea is to take the principles of the circular economy to move to a circular urban metabolism, in which the city can maintain and reuse existing flows of energy and materials, reducing external demand and connecting outputs with inputs. These concepts help us to propose a new city model to make it more sustainable and resilient," says Correa.

In a circular city: renewable sources are used to meet energy demand; products and materials circulating in the economy have value and their useful life extended, thus reducing pressure on natural systems through pollution and emissions. Innovation and the use of technology also encourage the creation of new circular business models, the development of local markets, the strengthening of the social fabric, and the process of industrial symbiosis in the city. The use of abandoned spaces is also part of the rethought process to offer services accessibility and leisure areas.

For this undertaking to be successful, it is essential to measure processes that a once traditional economy does not typically quantify.

A successful example in Chile is the Centro de Día del Adulto Mayor de Punta Arenas (Punta Arena's Senior Day Center). The building holds a Sustainable Building Certification (CES), which requires the company that manages waste or debris from a construction site to certify its recovery of materials for recycling or reuse. The recycled material must represent at least 50% of the total waste and debris removed.

We measured the carbon footprint of this public building's complete life cycle thanks to a collaboration between the Energy Ministry, the Public Works Ministry, and the Construction Institute. The results show an emissions intensity of 1,739 kg CO2e/m2, about 35% of which is due to materials and their transport, construction, repair, and end of life. The rest comes from emissions in the operation phase due to the use of electricity and fuels. The study modeled different awareness-raising scenarios, such as extending the useful life of the building or incorporating self-generation energy systems, calculating the effect on the life-cycle footprint for each one.

Extending measurements like this to different urban projects in Chile would allow us to estimate emissions levels produced directly by energy use in the city and those generated outside the city from the manufacturing and transport of building materials. In this way, for example, we can identify where in the value chain to concentrate our efforts to decarbonize.

A roadmap for Antofagasta, Santiago, and Concepción

The study "Circular Cities for Chile" explains the circular economy opportunities for each city analyzed. For example, the great potential for distributed generation at the residential level, i.e., produced in homes, buildings, and small plots of land, for the cities of Antofagasta and Santiago.

In Antofagasta, the massive levels of solar radiation and potential to generate energy with solar power plants in the region is a significant advantage. Instead of discarding millions of photovoltaic panels at the end of their useful industrial lives, a new cycle can begin for these panels by producing energy for homes and small businesses. Corfo, energy regulator (Subsecretaría de Energía), the Universidad de Antofagasta, and Enel Green Power are collaborating with various national players to develop a Public Good: the generation of technical and economic standards to enable the second life of photovoltaic modules.

Santiago is taking advantage of the more than 18 MW of installed capacity. Still, the city has much higher potential due to the high density of high-rise buildings, which offer an ideal space to build solar roofs and facades. A key example is the Nueva Córdova building, which has over 500 monocrystalline photovoltaic modules installed by Enel X. It is the first of its kind in South America. It will prevent more than 74 tons of CO2 emissions per year.

In Concepción, one of the most ambitious proposals is to explore the possibility of recovering industrial heat for district heating. Although it sounds futuristic, the Danish city of Kalundborg has had an industrial circle called "Symbiosis" in place since 1972, which operates on the principle that one company's waste is another company's resource. Through commercial agreements, 13  industrial estate companies share pipes and lines conveying water, energy, and materials, transforming waste into valuable assets and significantly reducing waste.

Research has also revealed significant potential for improving thermal insulation in Santiago and Concepción and electrifying household activities, such as heating, in Concepción.

In the three places, the leading GHG emitter is transportation, which is critical for any city's operation. Public transport is a straightforward first step towards electrification. Chile is already a world leader with its almost 1,000 electric buses circulating on Santiago's RED system, projected to grow to 2,000 by 2023, and plans by the Transport Ministry to be extended to other regions in the country over the coming years.

The transition has already begun

During the presentation of the study, Estefani Rondón, from ECLAC's Sustainable Development and Human Settlements Division, gave a positive outlook on the steps taken by several Latin American cities.

“The Latin American and Caribbean region already has several roadmaps to progress in this transition towards the circular economy, each city, and country with its particular characteristics. These roadmaps have four priority objectives: innovation, regulatory frameworks, governance and financing, circular cities, and civic culture. We have a basis for moving forward, and it is important to do so with participatory processes and a fair transition.”

– Estefani Rondón, ECLAC's Sustainable Development and Human Settlements Division

One of the initiatives is the Declaration of Circular Cities of Latin America and the Caribbean, which by July 2022 had already been signed by ten cities, ratifying their commitment to promote and accelerate a transition towards greater circularity and public-private cooperation. Santiago is a signatory, showing that Chile is one of the countries most determined to move forward with circularity and sustainable development. In fact, it is the only emerging global economy with carbon neutrality goals.

Natalia Correa provides another encouraging fact in that regard.

"In our analysis, we identified at least 17 established goals in Chile, which are state policies aimed at pushing for greater sustainability and circular economy initiatives in our cities. One example is the goal that from 2035 all new additions to the urban public transport fleet should generate zero emissions. We are off to a good start, but now we have to step on the accelerator," she said.