Four Actions that Latin America's Cities Can Explore to Combat Climate Change

Between now and 2050 global urban populations are projected to grow from 3.4 to 6.4 billion people. Latin America and the Caribbean is the most urbanized region in the world, with 80 percent of its inhabitants living in cities. In 2050, this number could exceed 90 percent. This type of rapid growth creates new and higher demand for resources, especially in the transport sector — already a large source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) — and pollution, as well as an inescapable energy cost. A crucial decision for Latin American and Caribbean policymakers, civil society, the private sector, and citizens is how to adapt to this trend in a sustainable way. If urban population growth is not managed sustainably, the negative effects of this growth will only continue to mount, not only for public health, but also for the environment and global climate.

In order to avoid these negative effects, we have created a list of four priorities that will help the cities of Latin America — and particularly their urban transport sectors — grow more efficiently, cleanly, and sustainably:

Develop more efficient and accessible public transit. Two important goals for the region are: reducing vehicle miles travelled (VMT) and improving the accessibility of cities. Several different strategies with varying costs already exist to achieve these goals, such as improving pedestrian and bicycle access routes or building a metro system. Solutions to this problem, however, are different for each country — and each city — in Latin America. For example, Colombia has achieved significant reductions in VMT with the implementation of the TransMilenio transport system in Bogota. TransMilenio is an example of a bus rapid transit system (BRT) with lanes dedicated only to buses and their passengers. Instead of paying the high price of building a metro, other cities like Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro have also implemented BRT systems. Along with being cheaper, BRTs provide more accessibility to the lower classes, reduce the duration of trips around the city, decrease fatalities and accidents, and improve real-estate prices around the bus stops.

Improve the efficiency of light duty, commercial and heavy duty vehicles. Although it is important to reduce VMT as much as possible, the reality for large segments of populations living in metropolitan areas is that there may be no other option than to drive. Thanks to recent economic growth and the subsequent increase in the middle class, energy demand from the transportation sector has been growing more and more rapidly. For this reason many countries and cities in the region are exploring fuel economy standards. During June 2013, Mexico was the first to adopt standards for light duty vehicles of 14.9 kilometers per liter by 2016, which could reduce GHG emissions by 170 megatons. However, the standards have not yet been effectively implemented. Nevertheless, the benefits of these types of standards are significant. Under the current U.S. fuel economy standards, for example, NRDC estimates that if 2017–2025 targets are met, the U.S. stands to save 3.1 million barrels of oil per day. For many countries in Latin American and the Caribbean, especially those which import refined petroleum projects, these savings are crucial for the supply of oil, and they also create incentives for consumers, who save money by buying less fuel (around $2,700 throughout the lifetime of their vehicle in the Mexican case). Light and heavy duty commercial vehicles can achieve even greater savings from higher fuel economy standards because they burn more fuel in general than light duty passenger vehicles.

Reduce emissions and pollution from the transportation sector. Along with fuel economy standards, the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean can also better regulate GHG emissions and pollution from the growing transport sector. Currently, this sector emits one third of the GHG emissions of the region. Countries like Chile and Argentina already require new vehicles to comply with Euro V European emissions standards in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This is an important step, particularly considering that many countries in the region do not have any type of vehicle emissions limits, while others only have relatively weak standards. In order to achieve the most benefits from emissions standards, these standards still need to be increase to the current Euro VI standards in Chile and Argentina, and extended to the rest of the region.

At the same time, transportation is a dangerous source of emissions of short-term climate pollutants (SLCPs) like black carbon. Aside from causing significant decreases in the surface area of glaciers, black carbon and particulate matter emitted primarily from diesel vehicles cause numerous health risks. A new study, completed by NRDC, recommends that countries in the region implement a four step plan to reduce black carbon emissions within cities: implement better black carbon emissions monitoring systems; adopt cleaner, low-sulfur diesel (with a maximum sulfur content of 50ppm); create stricter emissions standards for new vehicles; and begin complementary programs designed to reduce the emissions of vehicles already in circulation. With these measures, Latin American countries can reduce their black carbon emissions by more than 95 percent immediately.

Plan urban development in a more efficient way. Many other solutions exist to improve urban planning along with the above-mentioned strategies. Cities such as London, England have implemented low emission zones (LEZs). In 2008, London began to introduce rules for different types of vehicles within the city limits. Each vehicle was given a specific registration that demonstrates if the vehicle complies with strict emissions levels and if the driver has paid taxes in the event of non-compliance. If the vehicle does not comply and has not paid taxes, cameras throughout the city will take photos of the vehicle and the driver will receive a fine. Currently, London is experimenting with an ultra-low emissions zone to alleviate yet more of the risks that come with poor air quality within the city. Along with increased tax revenues, this system reduces traffic congestion significantly throughout the city, facilitating access, while also dis-incentivizing driving in general and reducing VMT.

It is important to note that these measures are not the only options for improving the cities of Latin America and the Caribbean. These four measures focus mainly on the transportation sector and public transit, which are significant and growing sources of GHG emissions and pollution in the region. There are still other strategies to improve the quality of life for urban populations in the region, which address water consumption and the construction of more energy efficient buildings, to name just two. Together with other strategies, however, these measures can improve the energy efficiency and air quality of the growing cities of Latin America, and at the same to help to mitigate climate change.  

This blog was written by Sam Hoyle, intern with NRDC’s Latin America team.