COP25 – the world must wake up to environmental inequality

WhatsApp Image 2019-12-04 at 12.21.38People protesting in Santiago with colourful flags and political slogan. Credit: Carolina Cuadros

Karina Corada Perez, Research Postgraduate at Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy, blogs on how the UN Climate Summit, COP25, has already shone a spotlight on social crises and environmental injustices – and what she thinks governments around the world can do to change the economic systems that are unsustainable for human life.

On Friday 18 October 2019, millions of people took to the streets in Santiago, Chile in one of the biggest mass protests in recent times. The demonstrations were triggered by a rise in metro fares of 30 pesos (equivalent to 3 pence), which led women, men, children and students to rally under the slogan: “It’s not 30 pesos, it has been 30 years of injustice and inequality”. They were protesting against the current capitalist system in Chile, known as neoliberalism, whereby many social provisions, like education, healthcare, pensions and drinking water, are private and regulated by a free market.

These protests were characterised by being largely family-orientated and peaceful. However, the Chilean Government responded with oppressive measures. Human Rights Watch indicated that the National Police committed serious human rights violations: there are 74 reports of sexual abuse and 2,808 people were injured, to name a few. Historically, repression was a feature of the Pinochet dictatorship, an authoritarian military government that ruled Chile between 1973 and 1990. Seeing armed forces on the streets again spreads fear in the country.

This all happened as Chile was gearing up to host the UN Climate Summit (COP25), which was originally due to kick off in the city of Santiago, this week. Many Chileans wanted to cancel COP25 in order to put the spotlight on the massive social crisis in the country. The final decision to move the summit to Spain was, for Chileans, a triumph. It meant the world was watching the Chilean crisis – and it should continue that way.

Internationally, Chile is seen as an economically stable country, and it is. However, its economic development has been at the expense of deprived Chilean inhabitants and the natural environment. The development that promised to deliver a better quality of life for everyone, has benefited only a few people – Chile is notorious for its income inequality. In the north of Chile, for example, powerful mining industries take  precedence for extracting water for minerals processing, with some of them extracting more than 600 litres per second – despite the fact that the area is already dealing with drought. Similarly, agricultural companies use about 70% of water resources in drought zones. This is because water resources are a privatised commodity in Chile – putting businesses before people.

The situation in Chile is an example of an unsustainable economy that focuses on economic growth and disregards social and environmental issues. The environmental crisis is reflected in political and technological issues, such as poverty, urbanisation and the lack of access to services. For example, Santiago suffers high levels of traffic congestion and urban pollution, which exacerbates problems in transport, public healthcare, and accessibility of civic services. Less fortunate people and those living in deprived areas are surrounded by these problems, and the current social-economic system forces people to buy a better quality of life – through insurance, or private transport and education – increasing the level of social inequality. These issues are not confined to Chile, with Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Lebanon and Venezuela experiencing similar problems.

We cannot continue thinking about sustainable development from a capitalist and free-market standpoint. Overproduction of food, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, mineral extraction and burning of fossil fuels generate short-term and unequally distributed gains and contribute to the global environmental crisis. It is time to change capitalism for an integrated system of social, economic and environmental aspects. “Chile woke up”, as the protesters say; now the world must wake up for better equality and life for all.

The Grantham Institute is leading an Imperial delegation to COP25. Find out more about the team going and our events programme.

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One thought on “COP25 – the world must wake up to environmental inequality

  1. Pure capitalism, like pure socialism, is incompatible with civilisation, a balanced mix of both is needed.
    Finding the balance is the tricky bit.

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