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The biggest challenges for sustainability in Latin America

Climate change poses profound threats to Latin America. Four of the most prevailing environmental issues in Latin America include deforestation, unsustainable palm oil production, poorly planned hydroelectric dams that lead to flooded forests and farmlands, and illegal mining that has led to contamination by mercury and cyanide.

Latin American leaders are recognizing the economic opportunities of sustainable tourism, expanded renewable energy production, and the economic costs of forest loss and overfishing. Still, progress has been slow and significant political and economic challenges stand in the way of meaningful reforms.

In a region that experienced an economic shock of 7.5% GDP drop in 2020 and a 12% unemployment rate largely due to COVID-19, price is a determining factor for Latin Americans, and pricing continues to be one of the biggest challenges to sustainable production in the region. Products with a sustainable attribute, carry an additional charge, which limits mass consumption in a region full of very price-sensitive consumers. This is also a challenge on governmental level. A joint report from Oxford University and the UN published in May 2022 found that Latin America in 2020 and 2021 had vastly underspent on green recovery measures with only 2.2% of the region’s funds dedicated to environmentally sustainable projects. The global average is 19%.

Pricing and financial recovery from the pandemic is just one of the obstacles facing Latin America. Looking at energy transitions – the sheer size of the task is daunting! Wind and solar energy still only represent 6.5% of the region’s installed energy capacity, while fossil fuels account for around 75%. Latin America’s largest emitters include Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. Chile approved a bill in June 2021 that will close all its coal-fired power plants by 2025, albeit the proposed alternative is diesel.

Change must in large take place at the corporate, municipality and governmental level, and investing in innovation and technology for managing waste and natural resources in sustainable ways is key. There are currently 80 policies in the region that ban single-use plastics or promote circular economy.

Latin America is already affected by both drought and flooding as a result of climate change, and there are plenty of opportunities for improvement. The challenge is to create political change and understanding, and find solutions with great impact that are economically viable for the region.

In our following blog posts, we will dive into the challenges and opportunities in some of the areas of sustainability in Latin America, including renewable energy, solid waste management and water.