Chile’s Social Unrest: Why It’s Time to Get Serious about a ‘Just’ Transition

President Sebastián Piñera’s decision to cancel the COP25 climate negotiations, which Chile was due to host in early December, shows the importance of ensuring the transition to a sustainable world is just.

Expert comment
Published 4 November 2019 Updated 27 August 2021 3 minute READ
Demonstrators march in Santiago, Chile during street protests which erupted over a now suspended hike in metro ticket prices. Photo: Getty Images.

Demonstrators march in Santiago, Chile during street protests which erupted over a now suspended hike in metro ticket prices. Photo: Getty Images.

One year ago, during the last annual Conference of Parties (COP) held in Katowice, the Polish government launched a Solidarity and Just Transition Declaration, signed by 56 governments including the UK, making the case for why the green transition must be just.

Three years earlier in 2015, the landmark Paris Agreement also included provisions for a just transition where it stated that the decarbonization process should be ‘Taking into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities’. In practice, however, the concept of a just transition has not yet been implemented and has not been sufficiently considered by governments or corporations around the world.

The social unrest that has erupted in Chile’s capital Santiago over the past month, which has forced the Chilean government to ask to move this year’s COP to Madrid, is a case in point. This discontent clearly shows that climate action cannot be separated from social justice concerns. There has not been a real commitment by governments to ensure a just transition based on social dialogue from the local to the national level. This was seen in France with the gilets jaunes protests in November 2018 – one month after President Emmanuel Macron ended the so-called ‘fortune tax’ and instead introduced taxes on diesel fuel as part of an effort to transition to green energy – and the current situation in Chile has some striking parallels.

Sustainability transitions are a complex web of political choices and investment decisions which affect countries and societies in many different ways. Questions of social justice are everywhere, but in most cases, poorly understood by decision-makers. For example, although poverty has been reduced significantly over the last decade, Chile has one of the worst rates of inequality in Latin America and the highest Gini index in the OECD. The decisions taken in 2017 to power Metro de Santiago with solar photovoltaics and wind energy are commendable from a climate perspective, however, it led to students and young people protesting against rises in subway fares in October 2019.

They were joined by Chileans who are frustrated with rising living costs and by workers and trade unions struggling with low wages. As reported by the Chilean Human Rights Commission (INDH), so far more than 4,200 people have been arrested and more than 1,300 injured and hospitalized.

Climate negotiations beyond technicalities

This time there is also another important dimension to the protests: social unrest as a reaction to worsening inequality has the potential to derail multilateral cooperation on climate change and other global issues. Since tackling climate change is a race against the clock, the world faces the challenge of addressing both urgency and equity. The world cannot afford delays and needs to move fast but decision-makers need to take time for deliberation and civic participation to avoid rapid and ill-conceived transitions which eventually meet public resistance.

Many technical experts and negotiators, who often unintentionally divorce climate policy and technical discussions about emission reductions from social justice concerns, have been caught by surprise by the cancellation of the negotiations. For this year’s COP, one important focus of the official negotiations are the so-called ‘Article 6 Rules’ – the accounting mechanisms and modalities for a new form of international interaction on carbon markets and off-setting to ensure carbon markets can support countries in enhancing the ambitions of their stated climate action, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

What is becoming much more obvious now is that just transitions are at least equally important for achieving NDCs and other long-term mitigation strategies.

In order to meet the 1.5 degree target, stated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world will have to invest an average of around $3 trillion a year over the next three decades in transforming its energy supply systems. But how can we ensure that these investments benefit low-income communities? Will they further increase everyday living costs? The climate finance related discussions focussing on commercially-oriented investments for low-carbon energy systems in most cases only consider the aspect of affordability, but not the other important principles of alternative ‘just’ energy finance, such as good governance, due process, intra-generational equity, spatial equity and financial resilience. Investments to support just transitions need to ensure investments, not only for large energy infrastructure, but also in the jobs, skills and work vital to both adaptation and mitigation.

Just transitions for a circular economy

The just transition concept is also the entry point to broader discussions about inclusive economic transformations, questioning the dominant paradigm of consumerism and ending the wasteful use of critical resources. The current linear economic model of take-make-throw away – in Chile epitomized by the linear extractive model of the mining sector that has contributed to widening inequality – the linear extractive model is not only destructive on the natural environment but also destructive for social cohesion.

In Chile, the commodity boom in copper production – the country accounts for about 30 per cent of the world’s output – and more recently lithium – which is used in batteries for mobile phones, laptops and electric cars – have generated enormous prosperity in Chile. But the wealth has been unequally distributed and has not been used to lay the foundation for raising the overall level of incomes.

A socially embedded and inclusive circular economy can, therefore, be a way forward from the current situation the Latin American country finds itself in. The circular economy was intended to feature prominently during the 25th COP and Chile’s policies – from the Ministry of Environment and Chile’s Production Development Corporation (CORFO) – have played an important role in supporting the development of a circular economy, launching in 2018, the first public circular economy programme in Latin America.

The government’s support for start-up companies and entrepreneurs to develop inclusive circular economy business models is the right approach to addressing the issues of waste, employment, services for low-income communities and local economic development. These are solutions that need to be scaled up having the potential to reduce Chile’s economic reliance on the dominant extractive model.

As a global community, it is necessary to address the environmental and social objectives equally as not addressing social objectives will become an obstacle in achieving climate mitigation and solving other environmental issues.

The Chilean protests are a wake-up call and present an opportunity for the global climate change community – which includes governments – to ensure just transitions are implemented in practice.