I was surprised to learn that Haiti now has a more advanced mobile banking system than we do in the United States. Developing countries without an investment in old technology can sometimes leap ahead of the developed world simply by adopting the newest technology from scratch. This may also be the case when it comes to urban planning and a country’s national response to climate change. Over the last year, I have been following developments in Latin America, where I have colleagues working on projects, and am surprised to find how updated local planning concepts have become with the latest U.S. trends in sustainability.
For example, recently a friend developing a beachside community in Ecuador sent me the community’s 2020 Vision statement, which included a strong focus on blending employment with residential development, education, public transportation, and urban agriculture. One advantage, Ecuadorians have felt the effects of climate change, and the full political spectrum, from far right to extreme left, concurs with the importance of crafting a response.
According to a recent report by the Inter-American Development Bank, by 2050 the world’s expected temperature rise of about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit will cost Latin America more than $100 billion annually in lost agricultural production. Because of this direct and severe impact, Latin America and the Caribbean, which contribute only 11 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the bank, have become leaders in efforts to curb global warming. About 95 percent of major Latin American cities are planning for climate change, according to a June 2012 survey by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In the United States, only 59 percent of major cities are making similar efforts, the survey showed.
In Ecuador, a 2008 constitutional amendment (PDF) summarizes the country’s commitment in article 414, which established that: The state will adopt appropriate and cross-cutting measures for the mitigation of climate change, through the limitation of emissions of greenhouse gases, deforestation, and atmosphere contamination; at the same time, it will apply measures for the conservation of forests and vegetation, and will protect the population in risk. Are we ready for a constitutional amendment on climate change? Hardly.
MIT recently published a report profiling the Ecuadorian capital Quito as a world leader in response to climate change, stating, “The cities that are most active in preparing for climate change are not necessarily the biggest or wealthiest. Instead, they are often places buffeted by natural disasters and increasing changes in temperature or rainfall. In places where the climate seems to be a growing threat to human lives, resources and urban infrastructure, local officials have been working with scientists, conducting assessments and examining which new measures may best prepare them for the future.”
It may be time we turn our eyes south for inspiration. For one, Latin American governments have created a governmental culture in response to the overall threat, and specific actions of climate change such that individual municipal departments have embraced specific roles. As the municipal plans my developer friend forwarded me show, climate change now presents a “new hurdle for urban planners in any part of the world: the need to start using scientific projections to understand the potentially novel impact of global warming,” said JoAnn Carmin, an associate professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and lead author of the “Progress and Challenges in Urban Climate Adaptation Planning.”
Admittedly, without international support and large budgets, the available response remains limited in developing countries, but the intention to grapple with this problem today, rather than defer action, may put the developing world ahead of industrial powerhouses like the United States with large investments in older technology and antiquated thinking.