Sustainability in Latin America

November 2021

Latin America has among the largest forest and biodiversity availability in the world, but poor environmental protection and rapid forest loss threatens the region’s biomes. Many regional countries lead in sustainable energy sources, especially hydro energy, but clean energy is not available to everyone. Increasing exposure to natural disasters is a particular concern given the vast populations concentrated in coastal areas.

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Key Findings

Natural disasters continue to intensify

Exposure to the full range of physical climate risks is increasing in Latin America, with the region being particularly prone to hydro-meteorological disasters, due to its tropical climate. Increasing temperatures are resulting in the melting of Andean glaciers, which are an essential source of water in South America, contributing to rising water stress in the region.

Renewables will dominate in electricity generation

Most electricity output came from renewables in Latin America in 2020, with a number of Latin American countries pledging to generate 70% of energy consumption from renewables by 2030. The region is, however, struggling to ensure universal access to electricity, and clean fuels and technologies for cooking.

Poor environmental protection will threaten rich biodiversity and woodlands

Latin America has some of the most species-rich biomes in the world, leading to high forest and biodiversity availability. However, rapid deforestation, coupled with an increased frequency of wildfires, driven by climate change, threaten species and their natural habitats. The high prevalence of illegal trade in pets and wildlife trafficking add to these threats.

Weak water management, but large renewable water resources

The region has high precipitation levels and substantial renewable water resources; however, water productivity remains low, due to a lack of high-quality infrastructure and proper irrigation systems. Poor sanitation also remains an issue in the region, as water pollution is getting worse, and the risk of waterborne diseases remains high.

Increasing air pollution

Due to poor solid waste treatment, a significant amount of waste ends up in illegal dumps and gets into rivers or surface water, reducing water quality in the region. Furthermore, while air quality remains high, rising CO2 emissions are causing concerns. The main reasons for increasing air pollution are expanding usage of motor vehicles and increasing consumption.

Strong agriculture sector

Agriculture is a key to many regional economies, thus the region is ranked highly in the Food Security category. In 2020, Latin America increased its agricultural exports by 9%; however, food expenditure as a proportion of total consumer expenditure remains higher than the world average, impeding food availability, especially for the poor.

Introduction

Scope
The Environmental Sustainability Index
The six core pillars of environmental sustainability
Key findings (1)
Key findings (2)
The pandemic has hampered progress in reaching sustainability goals
Renewables capacity and strong agriculture lead to better ranks
Exposure to adverse weather events worsen sustainability stance

Energy Pillar

Expanded renewables capacity helps Uruguay to become regional leader
Strong energy sustainability, but availability remains insufficient
Old vehicle fleet contributes to transport consuming the most energy
Renewables are the leading source of electricity in Latin America

Pollution Pillar

Colombia significantly improves its pollution ranking over 2016-2020
Water pollution has worsened across Latin America
CO2 emissions on the rise, due to expanding transport sector
Livestock agriculture in need of emissions reduction techniques

Forest and Biodiversity Pillar

Mexico remains at the bottom of the Forest and Biodiversity pillar
High forest availability, but nature preservation remains in peril
Fish species in Latin America are at risk of fastest loss
Wildfires threaten vast Latin American woodlands

Water Pillar

Guatemala at the bottom of Water pillar, due to limited water availability
Large renewable water reserves in Latin America
Higher risks of disease, due to lack of access to proper sanitation
A lot of water is lost due to inefficiency and poor infrastructure

Food and Agriculture Pillar

Mexico drops in the Food and Agriculture ranking
High food security, due to large agriculture sector
COVID-19 reduced food availability in Latin America
Due to growing support, organic farming is anticipated to increase

Environmental Resilience Pillar

Environmental Resilience ranking has significantly worsened for Uruguay
Latin America increasingly at risk of natural disasters
Susceptibility to extreme weather events is rising in Latin America
Latin America particularly prone to hydro-meteorological disasters

Country Snapshots

Paraguay: High pollution, but strong environmental resilience
High renewables capacity in energy generation
Panama: Lower pollution levels and strong position in energy sector
Growing susceptibility and exposure to natural disasters
Colombia: Strong agriculture, but lower environmental resilience
Alarming deforestation rate and intensifying natural disasters
Brazil: Biodiversity threatened by rapid deforestation and wildfires
Low resilience to adverse weather intensified by global warming
Bolivia: High environmental resilience, but low renewables capacity
Rising CO2 pollution levels
Honduras: High pollution and low food availability
Rapidly increasing number of threatened species
Costa Rica: Weak environmental resilience and high pollution levels
High renewable capacity in electricity generation
Dominican Republic: Increasing risk of natural disasters
Low renewables capacity and high expenditure on food
El Salvador: Low food availability and problems with municipal waste
Minuscule percentage of protected areas
Guatemala: Increasing exposure to adverse weather events
Low food availability due to elevated poverty levels
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