Latin America: Should this Earth Day be different from others?

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It’s tempting to think that this is just another Earth Day – after all, it has been celebrated since 1970. But perhaps this year should be different, at least in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This year marks the third year of drought for Northeast Brazil - still affecting some 10 million people, according to recent reports; a year when Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro suffered torrential rains and floods, impacting hundreds of thousands of people in these large metropolitan areas.

It’s also the year in which the northeastern United States still has people living in temporary housing after Hurricane Sandy and Haiti is still struggling to get back on its feet after the big earthquake.

And if this were not enough, the entire globe is still besieged by environmental problems: urban and indoor air pollution, inadequate water supply and sanitation, continue to affect the health of vulnerable populations across the region, including young children.

There are of course many positive things happening as well. In the past decade, more than 73 million people were lifted out of poverty and 50 million joined the middle class as a result of solid economic growth and sound fiscal and social policies. And commodities markets – important for much of Latin America given the region’s dependence on natural resources – remain reasonably strong.

So, how can we ensure the progress made by the region on the economic and social fronts can continue, and these hard won gains aren’t reversed by negative, and especially climate-related, events?

Fortunately, many countries are already implementing smart plans to address a whole bunch of environmental issues currently affecting them. These plans include increasing resilience to natural disasters and increased climate variability, environmental improvements, and, at the same time, mitigation actions to avoid climate change.

During my recent travels in the region it has become clear that things are changing.

  • Brazil’s growing environmental awareness is evident in their efforts to not only conserve the Amazon, but also to protect the internationally much-less known Cerrado -a vast savannah which has been made fertile-, and to also expand its marine conservation areas to protect large swaths of its ecosystems.
  • Colombia just passed a law instituting a biodiversity offset system, which will help enhance its protected areas and increase resilience and mitigation effects alike.
  • Peru has made major strides in combating urban air pollution, which is both good for citizens’ health and also has positive effects on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Rio de Janeiro is a front runner with its low carbon city development framework, which it even had ISO14001 certified. (a core set of standards denoting an effective environmental management system)
  • Several large cities have been investing in lung and Earth-friendly public transport systems, such as the Bus Rapid Transport system in Mexico City, which I had the pleasure to try out the other day. Or São Paulo’s metro system, which had 2 lines when I lived there as a student 30 years ago and now has 5 crisscrossing this huge metropolis and transporting some 3.4 million passengers daily.

So perhaps it is time to give up on the artificial division of resilience versus mitigation. By building better, more people-friendly, transport systems, cities increase service levels for their citizens and preserve their health.

They also help preserve the environment and curb greenhouse gas emissions at the same time. And by putting in place forest conservation programs and adopting more sustainable agriculture models such as in Costa Rica and Colombia, countries can maintain their ecosystem services and improve their resilience, while also enhancing important global carbon sinks.

By focusing on better water resources management, more citizens can be served with safe, affordable water – and landscapes become more resilient to the impacts of droughts and floods.

While Latin America is a front runner on many of these issues and, to many, an example to follow, there is still a lot to be done.

In this, the region faces a variety of specific challenges. From droughts to floods and other environmental challenges, as well as high urbanization rates, and increased global demand for the region’s natural resources – spanning oil, gas, lithium, and copper to tropical woods and soybeans.  As a result, the region now has an urgent challenge to further advance the green growth agenda many of its countries have begun to develop. Additionally, with a growing middle class pushing up demand for goods and services, the region faces the added challenge of doing so in an inclusive manner.

By moving on a trajectory of green inclusive growth, Latin America’s unique endowment of natural capital, along with other assets, can be used as sources of competitive advantage and used strategically to develop other types of capital, both built and intangible.

So, yes, this Earth Day should be different. In our quest to eliminate poverty and create more prosperity and equality, we have several options open to us, offering approaches which are both Earth and people friendly.

The ultimate goal is to help people Latin American have a better life not only today, but tomorrow as well.


Karin Kemper

Global Director, Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy Global Practice, World Bank

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