How better transport will help Latin America get ahead of the climate crisis

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Climate smart transport can help increase jobs, the economy, and inclusion.
Sustainable transport can help LAC reduce its climate emissions while also creating a stronger, more inclusive economy | © Nelson Antoine, Shutterstock

Time is running out to address the global climate crisis. All countries, regions, and communities have a shared responsibility to fight climate change by mitigating further emissions and adapting to growing climate risks. Latin America is no exception. The region contributes 8.4% of global CO2 emissions but pays a heavy price from extreme weather events: between 2000 and 2019, more than 152 million Latin Americans have been affected by climate disasters, including 12 flooding events causing at least $1 billion in damages each.

The transport sector is at the heart of these challenges. In Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), 35% of GHG emissions related to fuel combustion come from the transport sector—much higher than the global average of 22%. Transport emissions in the region are poised to continue rising faster than those from other sectors due to the impact of relentless motorization: Latin America’s private vehicle fleet is growing faster than any other region and is projected to reach three times its current size by 2050.

At the same time, the transport sector in LAC is also particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Of the 20 countries that face the highest climate risk relative to the value of their assets, six are in LAC: Suriname, Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Jamaica. And when disaster hits the region, transport is often the most significant contributor to business losses: on average, 56% of losses suffered by Latin American firms after a disaster are due to transport disruptions, the highest share in any region (the global average is estimated at 40%).

"Climate-smart transport can bring a host of additional benefits to the region, from stronger economic growth and job creation to improved accessibility and social inclusion."

Clearly, if the region is to make real progress in confronting climate change, transport should be front and center. This is consistent with the approach proposed by new Climate Change Action Plan of the World Bank Group, which identifies transport as one of five priority areas of focus for reducing emissions and enhancing resilience. So, how can the region better integrate transport into its overall climate strategy? There are at least four key considerations that could help LAC countries move the needle on climate-smart mobility:

  1. Reducing emissions from urban mobility by expanding mass transit systems, enhancing the efficiency of informal transport, and prioritizing non-motorized mobility. LAC has 10 km of mass transit per 1 million habitants (compared to 35 km/million in Europe), with the majority still provided by small informal operators. Scaling up investment in non-motorized transport could also bring significant benefits, as demonstrated by the example of Bogota: the Colombian capital recently launched an ambitious plan to expand and upgrade its biking infrastructure, and has already reached a 7% modal share of cycling.
  2. Promoting a multimodal approach to passenger and freight transport. Nearly 75 percent of domestic freight in the region is transported by truck with limited use of cleaner alternatives such as railways or inland waterways, despite the remarkable potential of these two modes in the region. In terms of passengers, railways in LAC move 38 million passengers-km per million people, far below the global average of 484 million passengers-km per million people. Multimodality should go beyond city boundaries to become a core element of transport planning in the region, including through the development of commuter rail and long-distance passenger rail services that can lead to low-carbon regional spatial growth.
  3. Boosting e-mobility, improving motorization management of internal combustion engine vehicles, and exploring the development of new fuels. LAC is powered by a mostly clean energy grid, which means the environmental case for electric mobility in the region is particularly strong. Several Latin American countries have successfully electrified part of their public transport fleet using public-private financing mechanisms, a model that could easily be expanded to other cities and countries. In parallel, governments should continue their efforts to reduce the climate impact of internal combustion engine vehicles by improving motorization management with renewal programs, stricter emissions standards, tighter regulations on the import of polluting vehicles, and the development of cleaner fuels like green hydrogen, biofuels, or blue/green ammonia.
  4. Protecting rural roads against climate risk. For vulnerable rural communities, rural roads provide an essential connection to goods and services such as education, health, jobs, and food, so climate-related road disruptions have severe consequences beyond infrastructure damages. In rural Haiti, for example, the loss of access due to heavy rains is the second greatest challenge for women who need to access hospital services. Investing in robust asset management practices and ensuring proper road maintenance is critical to increase resilience of rural roads as poor infrastructure conditions are a major driver of climate vulnerability. Additionally, pilot projects in LAC have also shown that nature-based solutions can be an effective way of creating climate-resilient roads while preserving ecosystems and strengthening local communities.

Cleaner and more resilient transport systems will go a long way in helping LAC address the global climate crisis. The solutions outlined above will help bring this vision to life and chart a path toward green, resilient and inclusive recovery.



Franz Drees-Gross

Director of Infrastructure, West Africa

Nicolas Peltier-Thiberge

Global Director for Transport, World Bank

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