It wasn’t supposed to unfold like this. Chile and its former businessman president Sebastián Piñera were due to host the annual climate change conference COP25 from 2-13 December. Popular protests then derailed that plan. A supposedly spontaneous protest over a subway fare hike on18 October, expanded into broader based upheaval over economic inequality and political accountability. A week after the political upheaval which had both an infrastructural and human cost, with more than nine subway stations burnt out, 20 people dead and scores of others injured, President Piñera called off the COP25 meeting.
While the president’s need to focus on domestic discontent was understandable, the decision to not host the unofficially dubbed ‘COP of action’ will seriously dent Chile’s international reputation and progressive agenda. This year’s environmental confab was to include representatives from more than 190 countries and was a not-so-subtle plan to showcase Chile’s ambitious plan to become carbon neutral by 2050. At least nominally, this year was also to represent an evolution in thinking about climate change and environmental mitigation, with a focus on the ‘circular economy.’ Chile’s offer to host the global event was part of a broader policy of Chile stepping out as a more prominent diplomatic player on the regional and global stage, across a range of issues of national interest.
Below we discuss the planned meeting, what Chile lost by not hosting the world’s biggest climate change confab, and what next for the country.
What to watch:
- While Chile has long been integrated into global and regional diplomatic and trade networks—with more than 20 free trade agreements across the world and one of the founding members of hemispheric trade and diplomatic bloc the Pacific Alliance and is a member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—it has often been reluctant to leverage its position for a larger diplomatic role in multinational issues, such as human rights, democratic defence and humanitarian relief. By hosting COP25, however, Chile’s conservative government, under President Sebastian Piñera, was showcasing his government’s domestic and international commitment to addressing climate change and a major step forward in thinking about environmental sustainability.
- In recent years, Chile has taken a leadership role in the Group of Lima, the ad hoc grouping of Latin American countries that formed in attempt to increase pressure on the President Nicolás Maduro’s autocratic government in Venezuela. In late September, in the shadow of the UN General Assembly in New York, 18 foreign ministers—including Chile’s—passed a resolution under the Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (or the Rio Treaty) to adopt multilateral sanctions against the Maduro government. President Pinera has claimed that in part the popular protests are coordinated by Maduro and shadowy connections. Whether true or not, they have found fertile ground in one of the most economically successful countries in the region and an infamously incestuous political class.
- In her role as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Chile’s former President Michelle Bachelet has become a prominent, outspoken advocate for human rights and humanitarian issues around the globe, most notably in Venezuela. This role comes after her stint, between presidential terms, as the head of UN Women.
- Chile was already the first country in South America to introduce a carbon tax, as early as 2014. Renewable energy is also fundamental to Chile’s National Energy Policy 2050 and the country recently announced that it will start including the costs of fighting climate change in government budgets beginning in 2020. But Chile’s leadership role in climate and environment action goes beyond the energy transition.
- While Chile had chosen nine special themes for the COP, the central theme of the circular economy represented a key umbrella concept for many of them. The concept aims to reduce vote, reuse, repair and recycle products rather than throwing them away – both at local domestic and national and international industrial level. By embracing the circular economy Chile was looking at and promoting a whole system change. The country already has several policies which fall under the circular economy concept, such as the 2016 Framework Law for Waste Management, Extended Producer Responsibility and Promotion of Recycling, National Action Plan on Sustainable Consumption and Production 2017-2022 and Construye 2025, which seeks to promote sustainability and circularity within the construction sector. Chile was due to debut its national circular economy roadmap at COP25.
So, what next for Chile as a regional economic and environmental leader? It is hard to predict the course of its environmental ambitions, and unclear whether the country will still launch its circular economy roadmap in the same timeframe. However, the national development agency CORFO already provides financial support to circular economy activities and innovation, so it is unlikely this the domestic agenda will slow down significantly as the wheels are already in motion. On a social and political level however, more significant change may be afoot. Chile’s constitution was put in place under the Pinochet dictatorship and, despite having been amended some 20 times since, there are now calls for a total rewrite. As Piñera said when cancelling the climate change conference: “When a father has problems, he must always put his family before everything else. Similarly, a president must always put his own countrymen ahead of any other consideration”. It is likely that for a period of time Chile will need to focus inwards to resolve social and economic inequality, before reappearing on the international stage.