Chile withdrew as host of this year’s UN climate conference amid widespread unrest, but that doesn’t mean that fighting climate change should be pushed into second place behind addressing social inequality. On the contrary, the situation in Chile shows all countries that the social and climate crises cannot be treated separately. The simple fact that the popular uprising was triggered by a fare increase for one of the greenest metros in the world shines the spotlight on equity in access to sustainable mobility.
As countries gather for COP25 in Madrid starting next week, at a moment when protests against inequality and for climate justice are growing around the world, Chile’s experience can draw attention to the linkages between climate and social equity.
While the protests and calls for human rights and equity in Chile continue, here are opportunities in the transport, energy and water sectors that could help address climate and social challenges at the same time — not to mention inform discussions in many other countries.
1. Ensuring that everyone benefits from sustainable mobility can improve social inclusion.
Zoning and other regulations could also lower the risk that the development of metro lines drives gentrification. In many newly connected districts, sharp increases in real-estate prices have priced out long-term residents. The quantity of low-income housing options has dropped by half. In addition, there is a need for more jobs and services in low-income neighborhoods so that residents don’t have to travel hours to wealthier districts in order to access employment opportunities.
2. A fast shift to renewables can reduce the cost of living.
Inefficiency in Chile’s energy system has also played an important role in the social unrest. The country’s dependency on imported fossil fuels for the majority of its energy supply explains why the fluctuation of foreign exchange rates and oil prices highly impact the cost of goods and services, such as the metro fare hike last month. One in three households suffer from energy poverty because they don’t have access to reliable or affordable energy services.
While Chile stands out for its market-driven approach to the energy transition, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and others propose further regulations to deliver better energy services for all. These include ensuring the fulfillment of pledges for low electricity prices made by companies’ winning calls for electricity tenders; mandatory energy performance standards for products, equipment, vehicles and buildings; and greater targeting of energy efficiency programs toward households that struggle to pay energy bills.
3. Equity and resilience go hand-in-hand with reducing water stress.
This crisis is exacerbated by a deficient water system over which the government has very limited control. The Water Code adopted under the Pinochet regime in 1981 grants water rights to private companies in perpetuity, a system blamed for high levels of inefficiency and inequality. Chileans pay one of the highest water tariffs in Latin America, even as poor pipes cause the loss of 35% of urban drinking water; Overexploitation of surface and groundwater sources degrades watersheds, and, relatedly, 47% of rural homes, some one million people, lack access to drinking water. Conflicts between companies and rural and indigenous communities over water rights are on the rise.
Current debates in Chile in the transport, energy and water sectors highlight the importance of just climate transitions and the ways in which well-designed climate policy shifts can reduce longstanding social inequalities. As public movements against inequality and in support of climate action take place around the world, COP25 is a key moment to spur countries to keep the imperative of equity in focus as they step up climate action.