By Consuelo Espinosa, CDKN Regional Director, Latin America and the Caribbean

The richness of heterogeneity

The 42 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are home to 595 million people. After almost two decades of economic growth, 34% of this population are considered middle-class, but 25% still live below the poverty line and a further 38% are at risk of sliding back into poverty. In addition, growing urbanisation has meant that 78% of the population now live in cities. The social and cultural composition of the countries is also highly diverse.

The countries vary greatly in terms of size and landscapes. A bird’s-eye view of the region represents a journey over heterogeneity: the large green and brown spots are the forest ecosystems, most notably the Amazon basin; the blue and crystal-green are waters such as the Caribbean Sea and Lake Titicaca; long, serpentine rivers include the Amazon; vast mountain ranges include the Andes and there are immense deserts such as El Desierto Patagónico. The region’s richness in natural resources is similarly well known: around 23% of the world’s forests are found here; it has 31% of the world’s fresh water; and six of the world’s 17 most mega-diverse countries are here.

Economy, finance and investment

There is also considerable diversity in terms of economic development. Brazil is the world’s seventh largest economy, while Haiti is ranked among the 20 poorest countries worldwide. In terms of income distribution, Latin America and the Caribbean is the most unequal region in the world. However, the region as a whole is ranked as middle-income and, as a consequence, has been excluded from the priority lists for international cooperation in support of environmental and climate change action.

Economists in the region largely agree that 2014 represented the breaking point for the economic growth in the region after almost 20 years; the subsequent decline is due to the cyclical nature of the region’s economy. Governments generally have an inadequate understanding of the links between climate change and development and will have to make increasingly tough decisions about investments on national priority issues in the context of decelerating economies.

However, CDKN’s experiences in the region show that governments and the private sector are willing to invest in climate change action when they have a reliable, initial partner. Financial backing has helped to generate data to underpin policy frameworks and decision-making processes for climate compatible development. Rather than presenting climate change as a barrier to development, we should be incorporating it as a variable in decision-making processes and directing our efforts towards a better understanding of the different options that exist for sustainable development in a changing climate.

It is important to encourage this change of perspective by helping governments to explore innovative approaches for putting climate compatible development into practice. This will involve specific roles for actors and institutions at local levels. Building links between subnational frameworks and national ones is the next logical step, one that will determine the way climate finance can be utilised at local levels. And since the phenomenon of climate change has highlighted the links between different economic sectors and the natural world, integrated approaches that examine the links and trade-offs among water, energy and food can also help to deal with climate-related challenges in the region.

The basis for low-emission development

The total carbon footprint of Latin America and the Caribbean has decreased by about 11% since the start of the 21st century, largely due to decreased rates of deforestation and improvements in energy efficiency. Some countries have also taken interesting steps toward low-emission development strategies (LEDS) at national, subnational and sectoral levels. Chile, Colombia and Mexico are preparing national LEDS, while Brazil is leading the way on urban LEDS; Costa Rica is developing a strategy to reduce emissions from some 70% of its livestock over the next 10–15 years.

Alongside these LEDS, other initiatives are underway. Peru has committed to zero net emissions for the land use and forestry sectors by 2021; Chile aims to generate 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020; and the Caribbean Community and Common Market has committed to implementing an energy policy to help its members transition to renewable energy. Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico are actively addressing emissions from their transport sectors.

Notwithstanding this progress, a forthcoming study by CDKN and Fundacién Futuro Latinoamericano will warn that, without further action on climate change, SDGs on ending poverty, clean water, health and wellbeing, terrestrial ecosystems, zero hunger, sustainable cities and accessible energy will not be met. Data submitted to the UNFCCC (and readily accessible via, demonstrate that although emissions from the forest sector have decreased by up to 50% between 1990 and 2013, emissions from bunker fuels, industrial processes, waste and energy have increased significantly in the same period. Thus, any strategy countries put in place for the achievement of SDGs will have to be accompanied by further efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of the region. The region will have to strengthen efforts in sectors such as agriculture, energy, inclusive cities and resilient infrastructure to ensure a sustainable and climate compatible development.

CDKN focus areas in Latin America and the Caribbean

Due to the heterogeneity of the region, it is important for programmes like CDKN to keep a balanced portfolio of climate compatible development initiatives, in order to support both middle-income countries like Peru and developing countries like El Salvador. This portfolio should include both early interventions and innovative approaches. Early interventions require investing and supporting ideas that traditional donor partners may be unwilling to support.

It is important that the region improves its capacity and develops stronger governance structures at the city and state levels. For example, the city of Cartagena in Colombia faces immediate and future threats from a changing climate, including rising temperatures and increases in the frequency and severity of flooding and storms. These are destroying beaches and corals, driving the spread of disease, and increasing the risk of human displacement. These threaten the city’s social, economic and public health sectors, putting climate change on the agenda of the city’s government.

Adaptation Plan of Cartagena de Indias and its islands
Adaptation Plan of Cartagena de Indias and its islands

Climate compatible development policies tend to have longer-term targets, tackling challenges that lie beyond those faced by current governments. These can be tackled by including other actors in decision-making processes. For example, Cartagena’s civic leaders, non-governmental organisations, businesses and the city government worked together to assess and understand the city’s climate impacts and prepare a climate vulnerability assessment and adaptation plan. This demonstrates how diverse actors’ comparative strengths – in technical, financial and human resources, and in local knowledge – can blend to achieve policy progress.

Civil society participation is a significant feature in the region and has demonstrably contributed to building legitimate processes. Promoting broader participatory processes should hence be an integral component of any climate compatible development programme. Furthermore, the generation and use of information from research is instrumental in ensuring the use of the results of multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder processes in decision-making at the government level.

CDKN’s primary areas of focus in Latin America and the Caribbean relate to:

  • supporting climate compatible development methods and tools;
  • generating data and applying research findings;
  • building a trusted environment for implementation of climate compatible development policies; and
  • helping governments explore innovative climate compatible development approaches.
Explore CDKN’s work in Latin America and the Caribbean further
Explore CDKN’s work in Latin America and the Caribbean further