Taking action on climate change in Latin America cities helps meet development goals

Climate change is often portrayed as merely an environmental issue, but the reality is that in regions like Latin America, it’s actually also a development issue. Across the region important economic sectors and resources are highly vulnerable to climate disruptions, and low-income and rural communities are disproportionately affected. This makes it imperative for countries to respond early to these challenges. Boosting climate resiliency, as well as transitioning toward cleaner, lower carbon economies can generate significant social and economic benefits for local communities and businesses, and should be an integral part of nations’ ongoing development agendas. Latin America’s cities, where nearly 80 percent of the population resides, are key in this regard. As the recent report “Protecting our Capital”  by CDP points out, cities generate 80 percent of global GDP. At the same time, cities also produce a disproportionate share of global CO2 and can be hit hard, both physically and economically, by climate impacts. This makes cities critical players in the fight against climate change. The good news is municipal governments, including in major Latin American cities, are already beginning to respond to climate change.

In its study, CDP looked at survey data from 207 cities around the world (46 in Latin America) and found that most felt climate change could have negative impacts, the majority also acknowledged that acting to address climate change was a prudent economic move. In the case of Latin America, a majority of cities surveyed recognized that adapting to climate change would have economic benefits. Encouragingly, the types of actions cities can take to address climate change challenges – strengthening infrastructure, managing water efficiently, reducing the urban heat island effect, etc. – are also steps that can help cities in Latin America meet development goals.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has also looked at the climate and cities nexus. In a series of workshops in 2011 and 2012, experts from across the region looked at climate change impacts in six major cities and highlighted some examples of how these urban areas are taking action (see the research project’s full report including information on three additional cities here):

  • Mexico City, which is already seeing higher temperatures and changing precipitation, expects floods, droughts and other disruptions to increase in frequency in the future. One way to address how such challenges disproportionately impact low-income groups is through improved housing conditions for these communities. The federal government has teamed up with Mexico City to promote green mortgages (“Hipotéca Verde”), a line of credit for social housing outfitted with green technologies, including solar water heaters, energy and water saving devices and thermal insulation. This financing provides incentives to build and buy such houses, which save electricity, water, and gas. While this program is helping to mitigate climate by reducing emissions, it’s also helping communities adapt to changing temperatures and conserving scarce water resources.
  • Santiago is also expected to become increasingly hotter, drier and more prone to extreme events like flooding. Predicted water shortages could impact electricity and food prices in Chile’s capital. Meanwhile, rising urban heat would also affect the health of low-income neighborhoods. In response, the ClimateAdaptationSantiago (CAS) project, a participatory project that included the regional government and other stakeholders organized round tables from 2010 to 2012 to identify climate change adaptation measures and develop a regional Climate Change Adaptation Plan for Santiago. Round table participants from the public, scientific and civil society sectors identified 14 adaptation measures aimed at, among other things, reducing extreme urban heat through land use practices, minimizing risk exposure, increasing water efficiency and boosting building efficiency.
  • Lima is also facing a water-constrained future and increased landslides and flooding where infrastructure is inadequate to deal with heavy rains. Increased flooding could in turn encourage the spread of diseases like dengue and malaria. Lima Water is a research project that was developed in response to these concerns, and aims to help the city think through sustainable water and water management challenges. To address it water concerns, Lima is working at integrated management of its river basins and using treated wastewater for irrigation. Some efforts that are not directly geared at climate adaptation are also helping Lima become more resilient. The urban agriculture Mi Huerta program that aims to establish 2,000 urban gardens in impoverished neighborhoods is improving access to food and could help the microclimates in some of the cities most underserved communities. 

There are of course significant challenges ahead: ensuring sufficient resources, improving coordination between agencies and government levels, and building the right capacities are all necessary. But the workshops found that cities were already taking steps to “institutionalize the issue of climate change at the urban scale” and what seems to work best is when climate-related actions are linked with existing urban goals.

And making that connection – that addressing climate change is a way to achieve Latin America’s (and other region’s) future development goals – is exactly what policy makers at all levels need to start acting on.