“Sustainability” has become a buzzword for everything from food production to business models, as much as a way to describe how economic growth can happen without high social and environmental costs. Yet the urgency to get it right in Latin America and the Caribbean has grown as the region faces the challenge of increased productivity needs in the midst of rapid urbanization, climate change, environmental degradation, and social inequalities.
The economic boom of the past decade resulted in impressive growth. The region saw its middle class grow to more than one third of the population and the number of very poor fell to under 5%. Latin America became one of the most urbanized regions in the world. The average electricity consumption quadrupled to nearly 1,700 kWh per capita between 1970 and 2006.
Today’s sluggish global economy, however, is threatening to reverse hard won socioeconomic gains. The focus now is protecting hard-won gains while safeguarding our environment and communities.
At the heart of this is the problem of our aging infrastructure. Each year, the region faces a US$250 billion gap to cover its infrastructure needs. Filling this gap is vital for improving social mobility for historically marginalized communities, transporting goods and services equitably throughout countries, and acting as an initial barrier from disasters.
Equally as important, however, is how these investments are spent. Consider that:
- Latin America and the Caribbean is vulnerable to natural disasters, which cost governments about US$2 billion annually. Nine of the world’s top 20 countries most exposed to disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes are in the region.
- The region is home to approximately 70% of the world’s species, yet these species are increasingly under threat from human activities.
- Deforestation rates in the region are twice as high as the global average, contributing to the region’s increase of CO2 emissions.
- Latin America and the Caribbean is already experiencing the adverse consequences of climate change: extreme weather patterns and
climatic events are increasing in frequency and intensity, Sea levels are rising, affecting the region’s most vulnerable groups.
- Deforestation is affecting rain patterns, causing disruptions to electricity production and agricultural production. The Amazon experienced two “once-in-a-lifetime” droughts in 2005 and 2010 due to deforestation.
- Social and environmental concerns are at the root of a growing number of conflicts in LAC. Over 300 conflicts have occurred in the region associated with large-scale developments.
Latin America and the Caribbean is at a crossroads. It must decide on a better way to meet its current and future infrastructure needs. Without a strategic approach, the current conditions will serve only to exacerbate environmental conditions and social inequities, undermining long-term development and leading to more conflicts.
The good news is that, increasingly, initiatives to promote the sustainability of our ports, roads, airports and other infrastructure can be found. In line with our core strategy to support sustainable economic growth, last year the IDB approved a Sustainable Infrastructure Strategy. This strategy provides a vision on what we believe is sustainable infrastructure, and how we can best serve the region in closing the infrastructure gap without compromising regional biodiversity and climate change objectives. Initiatives such as the Regional Environmentally Sustainable Transport Action Plan, the Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative, Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Program, and the Climate Change Action Plan, as well as the Bank’s environmental and social safeguards, are aimed at ensuring that environmental and social considerations are integrated into infrastructure design, construction, and operation. We have tracked and reported our progress on these efforts in our Annual Sustainability Report, which is now in its 9th year.
This approach views infrastructure as an integral part of the sustainable development of this region. It allows us to better align a broader set of values and initiatives traditionally seen as competing with the goal of economic development. Reducing GHG emissions, avoiding loss of natural habitat, community consultations, and minimizing the displacement of vulnerable people, are all part of the careful considerations involved in making decisions about what kind of infrastructure should be developed to act as a catalyst for sustainable development.
Fortunately, there are many examples in the region of this type of sustainable infrastructure. In Costa Rica, the Bank and its partners are finding innovative ways to preserve the biological integrity of the jaguar’s critical habitat and implement a river offset while constructing Central America’s largest hydroelectric plant, Reventazon. There are many other examples, each offering lessons to help us all on the path to sustainability. As I travel through the region visiting projects financed by the IDB, I see forward-thinking private sector firms and government agencies applying and developing innovative practices in response to the concerns they’ve heard from local communities and civil society organizations.
With this in mind, I welcome you to the “viva sustainability” blog. This blog is a space to share ideas and insights into safeguards that make projects not only better, but more socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable at this pivotal moment in Latin America and the Caribbean. Each week, our specialists will endeavor to engage with you on different lessons, experiences, and opportunities. We will bring to you interesting stories and best practices that we’ve encountered on the ground as we work with communities, governments, and the private sector towards sustainability in different countries. We also want to hear from you. After all, at the IDB, ensuring that “sustainability” is more than just buzzwords involves bringing you into the conversation.