SANTIAGO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Chile’s decision to quit as host of December’s U.N climate talks, to focus on dealing with violent social protests, has undermined the Latin American nation’s efforts to craft a green, progressive image on the world stage, environmentalists said.
Against a backdrop of civil unrest, which began in mid-October, the Chilean government announced on Wednesday it would withdraw as the venue for the U.N. climate conference, dubbed COP25, with little more than a month to go.
“This is a sad moment,” Chile’s Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt told media. “While it was a painful decision to take, it is also a responsible and necessary one,” she added.
The conference would have been the first globally significant environmental gathering to be held in Chile, with the country set to strengthen its climate change commitments in line with an already announced plan to phase out coal power.
The cancellation of the meeting on Chilean soil left a sour taste for many researchers and climate activists.
But Schmidt confirmed Chile would at least retain the presidency of the event, which has been hastily moved to Spain.
On Friday, the United Nations said the climate talks would take place in Madrid on the original dates, from Dec. 2-13.
Schmidt tweeted that Chile would “continue to reinforce the work done with the understanding that social and environmental development go hand in hand”.
Cristina Dorador, a microbiologist at the University of Antofagasta and member of a COP25 working group on biodiversity, said hosting the conference and accompanying events “would have been an historic opportunity to demand greater environmental justice and to rethink the effects of climate change on Chile”.
Chilean scientists agree that the country’s climate is changing rapidly, with particular concern over watersheds in its increasingly arid central region, where the majority of the population is concentrated.
The plethora of demands raised by protesters on the streets of Chile’s cities in the past two weeks have included calls for more equal access to the country’s natural resources and an end to environmental damage by industries from mining to chemicals.
Many signs at demonstrations criticized the near-total privatization of water in Chile.
In addition, protesters want action to tighten Chile’s environmental regulations, some of which lag international standards, for example on sulfur dioxide pollution.
Just a week before pulling the plug on a Chilean COP25, President Sebastian Piñera had insisted it would go ahead, despite security concerns and the risk of welcoming some 20,000 international delegates at a time of political crisis.
Since Oct. 19, Chile has been rocked by a wave of nationwide demonstrations on a scale unseen since the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, which ended in 1990.
The unrest started as a student movement opposing a rise in the rush-hour metro fare in the capital Santiago.
But protesters have since coalesced around a wide range of grievances related to socio-economic inequalities in a country where more than half the population earns 400,000 pesos ($540) per month or less, as well as dissatisfaction with a political class perceived as unresponsive to ordinary people’s interests.
The Piñera administration responded with a set of reforms and a cabinet reshuffle that failed to appease the movement. More than a million people took to the streets on Oct. 25 in Santiago alone.
Police and military forces were called out in an attempt to restore order. But in the crackdown, at least 20 people have been killed and more than 3,700 detained, Chile’s National Human Rights Institute said.
The December climate talks are due to try to make progress toward putting the 2015 Paris Agreement into practice and ramping up action to curb global warming.
Constance Nalegach, an international sustainability consultant, said the high-profile nature of the planned COP25 in Chile had sparked “far greater interest in environmental matters” in the country than before.
But its government would now need to push forward on administrative and legal measures to keep up momentum, she said.
Ahead of COP25, for example, Santiago came under fire for not signing the Escazú Agreement - a landmark regional accord to facilitate access to information and justice on environmental issues - citing concerns over Chile’s sovereignty.
A parallel forum planned by Civil Society for Climate Action, a coalition of Chilean campaign groups, will still take place in Santiago in December, aiming to promote dialogue and citizen participation in tackling climate change, it said.
Jonathan Gaete, its executive director, said organizers of the gathering - endorsed by the official COP25 summit – were talking to the Chilean government about sending a delegation to Madrid to hand over a set of demands agreed at the event.
Reporting by John Bartlett; editing by Megan Rowling and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate