Last week we had the shock news that the Chilean government was no longer willing to host the UN climate conference in the capital Santiago in early December. The mass civil unrest, protesting against the growing inequalities being driven by President Sebastián Piñera’s policies, made the country too unstable to safely hold a huge international conference.
This is the second country to drop out of hosting the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25). Brazil bid for and won the right to host the two-week event but when President Jair Bolsonaro came to power, he seemed more interested in burning the Amazon to make way for loggers, soy farmers and cattle ranchers, and so refused to organise the COP.
Big changes of plan have happened before. At the end of 2000, COP6 in the Hague failed to reach a conclusion and everyone had to come back together in Bonn in the summer of 2001 for ‘COP6.5’, with the normal annual COP7 in Marrakech at the end of the year.
But there has never had to be a complete rethink just five weeks before the conference is due to start. Within a few days, the Spanish government had stepped in to say they would host the summit in Madrid on the same dates, an offer the UN was very pleased to accept.
Imagine you suddenly found you had to organise a conference for 30,000 official delegates, including 200 world leaders and many hundreds of media people from around the world, plus all the other people who will come to town because there is a COP on, in less than five weeks.
Campaigners unable to attend
It is great that Spain has volunteered. But for many, this is a disaster. There are already people sailing to Chile, making a point about the huge carbon emissions of flying en route. There is a full People’s Summit in Chile, which would have heard from scientists and activists coming from the COP who will now not be there.
There are many logistical complications, including tens of thousands of pounds in hotel deposits that many never be returned.
For those coming from all over the world from groups like Friends of the Earth, these events are always attended on a shoestring, usually booking travel with no refund options because it is the cheapest.
For our colleagues from outside the EU, there is the immediate problem of getting a visa to enter Spain in such a short time, despite offers of help from the UN organisers.
And if you were clever enough to book your accommodation months in advance in cheap Santiago, you won’t be getting the same kind of deal in expensive Madrid. There will be many people representing communities and campaign groups who will now not make it to COP25.
The political message that hosting the COP in Europe sends is terrible, despite the obvious good reason for having to do so. Holding the COP in Madrid means that three in a row will have been in Europe – Bonn, Katowice and Madrid, and Glasgow next year will make it four in a row. Europe and the rest of the world are supposed to kind of take turns (in 2017 it was technically Fiji’s turn and the conference was chaired by Fiji but held in Bonn).
It is great that the COP will still go ahead, but civil society, particularly those from Latin America, will be much less well represented than usual so some elements of the negotiations will be less developed, and this will mean there will be more work to do in Glasgow.
Dr Richard Dixon is director of Friends of the Earth Scotland