Demonstrators display flags and banners during a protest on October 21 in Santiago, Chile. Photo by Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

President Sebastián Piñera announced on Wednesday that Chile will no longer host the APEC and COP 25 summits, pointing to the “difficult circumstances” his country faces amid protests over the cost of living and other issues of inequality.

One could argue that this situation is evidence that the same economic model causing the current climate crisis is also reducing the spaces to discuss solutions to that crisis. The Santiago Climate Change Conference was billed by the Chilean Presidency as the “Time for Action”; many were looking to this meeting as a turning point, after which countries would hopefully be spurred to increase their climate ambition before the Paris Agreement becomes fully operational in 2020.

The cancellation of this UN climate conference represents a setback in the momentum for international efforts to fight climate change and puts increased pressure on countries, communities and businesses to step up and keep international commitments alive. At the same time, the current events further highlight the social equity dimension of climate change and the need for just transitions that involve the people who are currently feeling left behind.

Events in Chile linked to demands for wider social justice

The events transpiring in Chile are embedded in complex socio-economic issues and historical scars left by a 17-year-long military dictatorship. However, they can be linked to the demand by Chileans – and by populations in several other countries in the region and around the world – for wider social justice. And even the measures announced by the government, including a raise to the minimum wage, have not been enough to stop the protests.

Chilean experts highlight a small increase in public transport fares as the source for escalation between student protesters and government military forces. But they have posited that the rise in fares is merely the fuse in a social unrest time bomb that has been slowly fuelled by corruption scandals, the privatization of water and electricity, a dwindling pension system, and increased economic inequalities.

Climate change plays a role in this. The Chilean “water crisis” has been in the news recently, highlighting shrinking water flows in some of the main river basins. The privatization of water – a potential fuel to the protests – caused special concerns, in terms of overexploitation drying up the Aconcagua river basin and aggravating climate change impacts.

Climate discussions need to take the challenges of just transitions more seriously

This all emphasizes the pressing need for a “just transition” toward a low-carbon economy. At last year’s UN climate summit, my colleagues at SEI made the case for this, based on research on the topic from multiple angles, from how Colombia can prepare for a decline in coal to the complex dynamics in Indonesia and the broader equity issues at play when considering who has the “right to extract” in a 1.5°C or 2°C pathway. SEI researchers have also examined the equity dimensions of just transition policies at the national and regional level.

My SEI colleagues have argued, correctly, that people need to be included, that climate policies need to consider measures that ensure no one gets left behind, and that long-term planning is key to reducing risks for vulnerable populations. Furthermore, the discussion around just transitions should be expanded beyond fossil fuel workers and recognize the broader societal and economic effects of a low-carbon transition. The current events in Chile only underline the need for climate discussions to consider these challenges more seriously.

UN Climate Change is already exploring “alternative hosting options” for COP25. But while Chile’s cancellation will have serious logistical implications, finding a new location and date for the COP will be the smallest of tasks. The big challenge ahead is addressing wider inequalities and social justice issues related to our current economic system.

But at the very least, current events could motivate serious discussions at UN Climate Change on the need for such elaborate and regular in-person meetings. Perhaps leaner, remote and action-focussed discussions will be more effective in the general quest for a safer climate.