Ironically, the main topic for this year’s UN climate negotiations, scheduled to take place in Santiago de Chile, was supposed to be justice and equity. But after weeks of protests that led to more than a dozen deaths, many more people injured and the arrests of thousands, Chile’s billionaire President Sebastian Piñera announced that Chile was in no condition to host the planned COP in December, or the APEC trade summit in November.

More ironic still, the climate change conference COP25 in Santiago had been branded as a “Time for Action”. But with the question of if, where, when and to what extent COP25 will take place as yet unanswered, opportunities are dwindling to prepare the best possible ground for climate negotiators to gather and stake out the future direction of the Paris Agreement, and for researchers and activists to share ideas and produce the knowledge that drives climate action.

protester throws a chair in Santiago de Chile
Protests in Chile expanded to reveal much larger resentments than anger over higher subway fares. Photo: Claudio Santana/Getty Images

 

Inequality has spurred protests across the globe 

The recent protests in Chile, Lebanon, Ecuador and Argentina, as well as previous protests in France and Norway, have one major thing in common: inequality. In Chile specifically, the protests started with a price hike in the subway fares, but then expanded to reveal broader resentment towards low wages and pensions, increasing inequity, and decreasing quality of life. Price increases served as the spark that ignited the protests. But increasing economic inequality, corruption and sense of injustice provided the fuel.

This is a damning verdict on the neoliberal political and economic system that is holding the world in its grip. Protests are coming from both sides of the political spectrum, initiated not only by social movements on the left, but also from reactionary movements protesting against carbon taxes on the right.

Magnitude of need to reduce emissions implies trade-offs with economic growth

Since 2015 when the global community agreed to keep global warming to below 1.5 °C and to implement the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda, questions have been asked about how we can live in low-carbon and climate-resilient, sustainable societies. However, reflecting on these questions has also led to the realization that this equation does not compute under current political and economic conditions.

The latest special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states with high confidence that, if not carefully managed, the rapid pace and magnitude of change required to limit warming to 1.5°C will lead to trade-offs with some sustainable development dimensions.

Thus, we must ask: can we continue to expand airports around the world to promote economic growth knowing that it will lead to higher emissions? Can we increase fuel taxes without disproportionately affecting rural communities? Can we exit coal without negative impact on job and energy prices? Can we increase energy access to people without electricity and increase connectivity in an environmentally and socially sustainable way? Can we ensure synergistic effects from green jobs on a broader scale? Or to summarize, can we ensure sustained economic growth in a way that does not increase carbon intensity?

“The scale and rate of the transformation necessary to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda will lead to large and politically challenging trade-offs.”

All these questions apply to the climate and SDG implementation plans that countries have set out. However, these questions will undoubtedly force countries to make uncomfortable decisions – decisions that, if not undertaken properly, risk creating further backlash. The scale and rate of the necessary transformation will lead to large and politically challenging trade-offs. Particularly, the issue of inequality is a key determinant of synergies and trade-offs.

A shame on the world’s conscience

We may be facing an early stage of the global economic downturn, and if the downward spiral leads towards a recession, austerity and economic straitjackets are likely to be the proposed measures instead of political reform. In addition, increasing adversity from climate change impacts could lead to increasing regional mobility. A dangerous cocktail that could lead to increased public anger lashing out and moving towards populism, xenophobia and authoritarianism.

The Spanish government has now offered to use Madrid as the stage for COP25, and different options are being mulled at the time of writing. But however that might turn out, serious damage is already done: protests against inequality have made it impossible for one of the most important global forums to tackle the same questions above exactly where they need to be tackled. That is a disaster for the climate negotiations and a stain on the world’s conscience.