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What’s at stake after Chile cancels its hosting of COP25?

  • Massive protests triggered by social unrest over economic, justice and environmental issues have forced Chile to cancel its hosting of this year’s U.N. climate change summit in December.
  • As the organizer of the 25th Conference of Parties, Chile was to have led the effort to bolster ambitions in the fight against climate change aimed at ensuring that global temperatures don’t increase by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
  • On Oct. 31, a day after Chile’s president announced the cancellation, Spain offered to hold the conference on the scheduled dates, Dec. 2-13, in Madrid.

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced on Oct. 30 that his country was cancelling the 25th annual United Nations climate conference due to the social crisis that has swept the country in the past two weeks.

The meeting, known as the Conference of the Parties or COP 25, was scheduled to be held in the capital Santiago from Dec. 2-13.

“This has been a very hard decision to make and it causes us much pain because we understand the importance of the COP for Chile and for the world,” Piñera said in a statement from the governmental palace. He said the decision was based on “the wise principle of common sense” since “as the president of all Chileans I always have to put their problems, interests, needs, desires, and hopes at the top of the list.”

This is the first time that the annual U.N. climate conference has been cancelled.

“We are currently exploring alternative hosting options,” Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said in a statement on Oct 30.

A day later, in another statement, Espinosa said that Spain had offered to hold the conference on the same dates in Madrid.

The Putaendo River hasn’t had water for years, and it has become a dumpsite. Image by Michelle Carrere.
The Putaendo River hasn’t had water for years and has become a dumpsite. Image by Michelle Carrere.

What’s at stake?

“This meeting was key at the global level to get to the 2020 climate summit with new commitments,” said Ricardo Bosshard, director of WWF Chile, as the commitments made at the 2015 COP in Paris expire next year. He added that the Paris commitments were “unambitious” and “not being met.”

Manuel Rodríguez Becerra, Colombia’s former environment minister, said that “The voluntary national goals are not leading us to the path of not increasing the temperature of the planet by 1.5 degrees Centigrade [2.7 degrees Fahrenheit] but [rather] on a path of [an increase of] 2 or 3 degrees [3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit], which, as has already been said, is not enough.”

For that reason, COP25 had the significant challenge of increasing ambitions in the fight against climate change.

In addition, at the Latin American level, this COP was expected to bring agreements to stop forest degradation and restore large areas of forest. Agreements were also expected for ocean protection. All of these demands “are still present because global emergencies are still as urgent as they were one week or one day ago,” Bosshard said.

The question now is where the conference will take place, “because we need to get to Glasgow with many solutions.” COP26 is scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2020.

The Putaendo River valley, where only 31.6 millimeters (1.24 inches) of rain has fallen this year. Image by Michelle Carrere.
The Putaendo River Valley, where only 31.6 millimeters (1.24 inches) of rain has fallen this year. Image by Michelle Carrere.

The options

According to Rodríguez, the possibility of holding the COP in Costa Rica could be explored. The country had been helping organize the meeting in Chile. “What is certain is that it won’t happen on the scheduled date,” he said.

Peru’s former environment minister and now WWF’s climate and energy leader, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, said the COP “is a very big event for any country, even for a developed one, and it requires logistics that cannot be arranged at such short notice.” For Pulgar-Vidal, who presided over COP20 in Lima in 2014, the most realistic option would be to hold the event during the “intersessional” meeting scheduled for June 2020 in Bonn, Germany, or to hold an additional intersessional meeting.

He said that intersessional meetings, which take place throughout the year, are led mainly by negotiators, while the COP is a key event where leaders meet to make decisions that are important to the process of tackling climate change. If the COP were to happen in one of these situations, “The leaders should be invited to make the decisions they were expected to make in December this year,” Pulgar-Vidal said, adding that it was unlikely they would be able to bring together all heads of state at an intersessional meeting.

The COP is also a space where other actors from the private sector, civil society, indigenous groups and academia meet. The cancellation of the event also suggests that these connections won’t happen in the short term.

“Hundreds of organizations from the private sector and NGOs participate in a COP, and that is not often replicated in an intersessional [meeting],” Pulgar-Vidal said.

He added that he remains optimistic, even though “the process of the negotiation is going to be a bit delayed.”

“Many times crises have been the catalyzer of new decision-making,” he said, adding that he thought the world would remain committed to agreeing on the need to continue to address the climate “emergency” we face.

Land cracked by drought. Image by Michelle Carrere.
Land cracked by drought. Image by Michelle Carrere.

Chile’s environmental demands

The decision by Piñera to cancel his country’s hosting of the COP was precipitated by massive protests nationwide stemming initially from a hike in subway fares. The protesters have since seized on other issues, including high living costs and growing economic inequality, and their confrontations with the security forces have frequently turned violent. As of Oct. 29, Chile’s National Human Rights Institute (INDH) had recorded 1,233 people hospitalized as a result of these clashes and 3,712 arrested. Twenty people have died. The INDH has also taken up 138 legal cases, 92 of them relating to illegal mistreatment or torture, 18 to sexual violence, and five related to homicide allegedly committed by the authorities.

Environmental problems rank among the concerns being raised by the protesters, along with pensions, health care, education, and justice. Among the environmental issues making headlines even before the protests began in mid-October is the serious drought that has intensified this year. Another is the unequal distribution of water. Residents of central Chile complain that the agriculture industry is taking most of the water, leaving little for human consumption. There are also complaints about the severe pollution in the so-called sacrifice zones in northern and central Chile and the damage it has caused over years to the health of the local population. Other issues include lithium mining in the north of Chile, which scientists, experts and residents say is causing a decrease in the water levels in the Salar de Atacama Basin.

More than a million Chileans have taken to the streets to demand that the government take immediate action to address these issues.

In his speech on Oct. 30, Piñera reaffirmed Chile’s commitment to the COP and said that “In this matter, [Chile] has [provided] firm, clear and recognized leadership.” He also said the country has adopted commitments to fight climate change and global warming, focusing especially on ocean protection, decarbonizing the country before 2050, and forest conservation.

Banner image of the Salar de Atacama Basin by Francesco Mocellin via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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