Air pollution kills nearly 7 million people every year around the world. The situation could worsen in the coming years in Latin America and the Caribbean, where transport – a rapidly growing sector – is the main source of greenhouse emissions.
The region’s vehicle fleet is expanding faster than any other in the world and could triple over the next 25 years. This would result in a collapse of the cities’ road infrastructures and in a proportional increase of pollutants.
To avoid this dramatic scenario, several countries in the region are implementing innovative laws and projects to promote electric mobility and introducing clean vehicles into their public transport.
If the current fleet of buses and taxis of 22 Latin American cities were replaced with electric vehicles right now, the region could save almost US$64 billion in fuel by 2030, avoid the emission of 300 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, and save 36,500 people from premature death, revealed a UN Environment and International Automobile Federation (FIA Region IV) study, supported by the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) and the European Union.
UN Environment, through its MOVE platform and with the support of Euroclima+ project, is assisting Argentina, Colombia and Panama with their national electric mobility strategies, and is also helping Chile and Costa Rica in their plans to expand the use of electric buses.
Costa Rica is one of the regional leaders of the transition. The Central American country wants to be the first “decarbonized” nation in the world, as its President, Carlos Alvarado, announced last May during his inauguration.
The country already has an energy matrix that is almost a 100 per cent clean, which helped to reach an important record in 2017: more than 330 continued days consuming electricity only from renewable sources. But transport still depends on fossil fuels and is responsible of 68 per cent of energy sector emissions. The public sector is therefore paying greater attention to electric mobility.
Earlier this year, Costa Rica adopted a groundbreaking law in the region to encourage electric vehicles. The law creates economic incentives to the public and private sectors and introduces benefits, like better access to loans. Additionally, three electric buses will travel across the country as part of a pilot plan.
In the southern part of the continent, Chile is working to have the second largest electric buses fleet in the world, right after China, which currently has 150,000 units. The Chilean government approved a plan last year to gradually introduce 200 electric buses into the transport system of Santiago, Transantiago, and is aiming to exceed 2,000 buses by 2025.
Gianni López, a civil mechanic engineer at the Mario Molina Development and Research Center, says, at this stage, electromobility in Latin America and the Caribbean is mostly competitive in cargo and public transport vehicles.
“In the short term, the region will not have a transition like Norway’s, the world leader. The difference in prices between conventional and electric cars in our countries are still huge and can only be amortized through intensive uses,” such as buses, taxis, company fleets or cargo transport, explains López.
Gonzalo Pacheco, General Manager of the Chilean company Movener, says Chile and the rest of the region need to improve after-sales and maintenance processes, as there are only a few experts in the region and the local universities still do not offer this kind of training.
However, the charging infrastructure is seen as the great challenge of Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Although electric cars can be charged at home, users suffer from the so-called ‘anxiety range’. They are afraid the car will run out of energy before reaching the destination,” says Gastón Turturro, Engineering Professor at the University of Buenos Aires.
Gustavo Mañez, UN Environment Climate Change Coordinator in Latin America and the Caribbean, believes this is far from the truth. “Everyone in the region has electricity outlets at home or at work, and considering that vehicles are parked more than 90 per cent of the time during the day, they could be charged virtually anywhere at a cost almost 10 times lower than that of fossil fuels,” he explains.
Uruguay has recently taken important steps in this field: the country has built electric charging stations in 300 km of its main touristic roads, now the first ‘electrified’ route in the region. The South American country intends to cover 20 per cent of the 9,000 km of its national roadways by 2020. In addition, it has exempted commercial electric vehicles from import taxes.
Argentina has also shown determination. The Government has recently approved a decree that reduces duties on the import of electric cars from 35 to 2 per cent and has presented a law in the National Congress to encourage electric mobility, “very similar to that of Costa Rica and which will mark a precedent in the region,” says Turturro.
The country will also release a dozen of electric buses in Buenos Aires by the end of the year: “If we electrify the capital bus fleet, we could even have a 25 per cent reduction in emissions,” adds the expert.
In Colombia, Medellín prepares the deployment of 1,500 electric taxis by 2020, 500 of which will operate this year. While in Mexico – one of the world’s largest automotive producers –, two large companies, Zacua and Giant Motors, lead projects to manufacture 100 per cent national electric cars.
“Latin America has the greenest electricity matrix in the world, the fastest growing emissions of the transport sector and the highest use per capita of public transport globally. The region is uniquely positioned to take advantage of electric mobility”, adds Mañez.
The transition to electric mobility will help Latin American countries reduce emissions and fulfill their commitments under the Paris Agreement. The pact, signed in 2015 by nearly 200 countries, aims to keep the global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
UN Environment Office in Latin America and the Caribbean launched the MOVE platform in 2016 to accelerate the transition to electric mobility in the region. Since its creation, MOVE has positioned itself as a flagship community of practice in the provision of technical assistance, resource mobilization, capacity building and knowledge creation on electric mobility in the region.
Coronavirus: Reshape the urban world to aid ‘ground zero’ pandemic cities
Cities have proved to be “ground zero” the world over for the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN chief said on Tuesday, encouraging leaders everywhere to “rethink and reshape the urban world” as we recover.
“Now is the moment to adapt to the reality of this and future pandemics”, Secretary-General António Guterres said in his recorded message launching the latest UN policy brief, “COVID-19 in an urban world”.
“And now is our chance to recover better, by building more resilient, inclusive and sustainable cities”, he added.
Even the scales
Mr. Guterres highlighted deeply rooted inequalities in the poorest areas, citing strained health systems, inadequate water and other challenges that cities are facing in common, with 90 per cent of reported coronavirus cases concentrated in urban areas.
However, the report reveals that urban density does not inevitably correlate with higher virus transmission, saying that vulnerabilities are largely a result of the choices made on how people live, work and travel, in and around them.
Hubs of resilience
But cities are also home to extraordinary solidarity and resilience.
Pointing to the numerous examples of strangers helping each other, streets filling with citizens showing their support for essential workers, and local businesses donating life-saving supplies, Mr. Guterres maintained that “we have seen the best of the human spirit on display”.
“As we respond to the pandemic and work towards recovery, we look to our cities as hubs of community, human innovation and ingenuity”, the top UN official said.
The UN released the guidance to reflect upon and reset how we live, interact and rebuild our cities.
In responding to the pandemic, the first line of business is to tackle inequalities and safeguard social cohesion, said Mr. Guterres.
“We must prioritize those who are the most vulnerable in our cities, including guaranteeing safe shelter for all and emergency housing to those without homes.”
Noting that nearly one-quarter of the world’s urban population lives in slums, he flagged that public services in many cities require “urgent attention”, particularly in informal settlements.
Since access to water and sanitation are vital, Mr. Guterres mentioned how some local governments have stepped up, “from prohibiting evictions during the crisis, to putting in place new clean water stations in the most vulnerable areas”.
Bolster local government
To support and strengthen local governments, the world’s top diplomat underscored the importance of deeper cooperation between local and national authorities.
“Stimulus packages and other relief should support tailored responses and boost local government capacity”, he said.
Steering the future
Another key policy recommendation is for cities to pursue a green, resilient and inclusive economic recovery.
Against the backdrop of new bike lanes and pedestrian zones to improve mobility, safety and air quality in cities, Mr. Guterres said that “we must act with the same urgency”.
He observed that by embracing widescale telecommuting away from offices, it showed that “societies can transform seemingly overnight to confront urgent threats”.
Mapping the juxtaposition of sustainable-affordable housing in the post Covid world
The pandemic has definitely taken a vice grip of the entire world’s institutional paraphernalia which has severely affected not only the public health mechanisms but also economies across the globe. However, the present piece shall be hovering over an offshoot of this pandemic which has been incessantly ignored by the world at large. The problem in question shall pertain to the issues of affordability as well as sustainability when it comes to housing. Sustainability has been echoed in various international instruments starting from Stockholm Declaration of 1972 to Montreal Protocol in 1987 to Earth Summit in the year 1992. But the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals have put the sustainability debate at the forefront in the international legal regime. But, the inter-relationship of sustainability with the housing mechanism has not been explicitly recognised under the international legal regime. There have been passing references pertaining to clean water and sanitation, putting efforts for affordable and clean energy and making of sustainable cities and communities that have been provided in the Sustainable Development goals laid down in the year, 2015. The goals are absolutely silent on the issue of affordable-sustainable housing. However, United Nations Organization has been pragmatic in adopting the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing in the year 2015 which is the first as well as the fundamental international convention on the issue in question. This international convention explicitly talks about the goal of achieving the sustainable housing system and also lays down the challenges emanating out of the same.
Sustainability- A term difficult to decipher
However, the term “sustainable” housing is difficult to comprehend completely. There cannot be a straight jacket solution in deducing its definition and there are innumerable connotations attached to it. One of the environmental economists Herman Daly has laid down three essentialities for a sustainable housing framework. These include the rate of use of renewable resources, rate of use of non-renewable resources in the premises and lastly, the controlling of pollution emissions. Also, Dow Jones had developed a sustainability index which delves into the parameters of an ideal sustainable framework. But the parameters mentioned hereunder do not reflect an exhaustive list of things to be included in the sustainable and affordable housing framework.
Dichotomy of affordable-sustainable cities: International outlook
In the international domain, the researcher has critically analyzed three genres of models and decoded the sanctity of the same. The first model which was comprehensively evaluated was the USA model which was marked by Clear Act, 1963 but did not live up to the expectations pertaining to the issue in question. But later, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has laid down the criterion for affordable housing by attributing 30% of the gross household income but the sustainability factor was completely ignored. The UK Model brought the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing in the year 2015 deliberated upon the nuances of sustainability pertaining to housing mechanisms but did not take into consideration the affordability element. Lastly, the Australian Model discussed under the realms of Demographic International Housing Affordability Report of 2015 pointed out the soaring prices of housing facilities so deduced rules of affordable system of housing in the city of Melbourne. But, again one of the things the researcher inferred that there has been a necessary disjunct between affordability and sustainability in various legal institutional paraphernalia.
The Indian approach: A questionable concern
In India, too, the legal mechanism adopted by the government under the realms of Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana is called as “housing for all”. Under the mandate of the said scheme, the government intended to make houses for everyone at affordable prices. But, this scheme is absolutely silent on the issue of environmental sustainability. The ambiguity emanating out of this scheme needs to be addressed by the government as soon as possible. Even though there have been some governments like that of Trivendrum have been Good Samaritan in this direction by providing sustainable housing facilities at affordable prices as well. Even various private entrepreneurs have now become cautious in respect of their carbon-emissions and have started taking adequate action to substantially reduce them. This is in absolute sync with the Paris Climate Agreement of 2018. Sustainability is not only restricted to controlling and prevention of disparaging of the ecological structure of the world but also, helps in boosting the profits of the company in the long run. Sustainability has become one of the most debatable issues in the modern scenario. Any ideal housing mechanism has to be sustainable and affordable at the same time. Thus, the entire thrust of this research was on developing a sustainable as well as an affordable housing framework for the people in India as well.
But in the post Covid world, the international community needs to re-examine the structures of housing facilities wherein affordability should come in synchronization with the sustainability element as well. Recently, World Health Organization (WHO) deliberated upon the issue of housing so as to de-clutter those ill-made houses so that the spread of highly contagious virus can be contained. Though it has been rightly said by Robert Merton that “It is good to ask questions but it is always better to find solutions to those questions”, but such complex set of questions cannot be answered in one go. They need proper analysis of the problem and then only certain concrete measures could be thought of. The idea behind writing this piece was to ignite the spirit of empathy among the readers about the pitiable condition of the housing. It would be highly falsified on our part if we bombard the readers with a special set of suggestions because the cost-benefit analysis of each of those suggestions would be varied and comprehensive. Thus, I have left the door ajar so that the readers are able to familiarize with the given set of problems which are staring us in this context and then accordingly ponder about the need of sensitization of the sustainable-affordable housing issue at the domestic as well as the global level. The governments have always exhibited callous behaviour towards environment, human rights and public health issues. Thus, a stern eye needs to be kept on these reckless corporate and governmental entities which have only been disparaging the housing issue since time immemorial.
 JM Lavy CONTEMPORARY URBAN PLANNING, Pearson Education Publications 34-39 (4th edition 2009)
 Principle 6, Sustainable Development Goals by United Nations; https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals.html
The Geneva United Nations Charter on Sustainable Housing; https://www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/hlm/documents/Publications/UNECE_Charter_EN.pdf
Building back better in Albania: UNECE supports housing sector reforms and urban resilience
Albania has made considerable progress in the recent years in the provision of affordable adequate housing to all. Notably, the national government has been providing support to municipal programmes for housing construction; supporting investments into construction of affordable housing, including through public-private partners; and legalizing informal settlements to improve the living conditions of the population.
However, multiple challenges remain due to the lack of available public funds for housing construction and insufficient capacity of some of the municipalities to implement housing programmes. Moreover, natural disasters created new economic and financial challenges: the earthquake in Albania in November 2019 left 14,000 people or 2 per cent of the Albanian population homeless. Another earthquake struck Albania in January 2020, which brought damage to both public and private properties amounting to EUR 844 million. The cost of their reconstruction is estimated at EUR 1.07 billion: about EUR 800 million is needed to rebuild homes while the remaining amount is for repair of damaged infrastructure, such as schools and health centres.
The COVID-19 pandemic further diminished the budget resources available for affordable housing. According to the Albanian Ministry of Finance and Economy, the first phase of the lockdown will cost the economy EUR 16 million in tax revenues. In this context, there is an urgent need to develop new approaches to financing housing construction in Albania.
To discuss opportunities for financing affordable housing, the Albanian Ministry of Economy and Finance and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), in cooperation with Housing Europe, UN-Habitat, UNDP Tirana and the Union for Mediterranean, organized an online workshop on 18 June 2020 The workshop discussed housing finance challenges and opportunities and the future role of the National Housing Agency in Albania taking into account relevant international best practices. A wide group of housing finance and housing policy experts from Belgium, Croatia, Ireland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Ukraine and other countries shared their experiences on the topics.
The outcomes of the workshop will contribute to the revision of Albania’s National Housing Strategy and its Action Plan. They will also help the formulation of the local housing plans for three municipalities, which will be selected on a competitive basis. Other municipalities will be supported through guidelines that will be developed based on results of tests on the pilot municipalities.
The workshop will benefit the UNECE-Housing Europe-UN-Habitat joint “#Housing2030 Initiative: Improving Housing Affordability in the UNECE region” through the best practices on affordable housing shared during the discussions.
The workshop also initiated the work on the second Country Profile on Urban Development, Housing and Land Management of Albania to be developed by UNECE in 2020-2021, in cooperation with the Government. The first Country Profile prepared for Albania in 2002 focused on the housing sector. The second Country Profile will assess the country’s progress in developing housing and urban development policies and will include a comprehensive set of policy recommendations to support the country’s efforts to overcome persisting challenges in areas such as informal settlements, low energy efficiency in buildings and lack of financial resources for housing construction and renovation.
Following the workshop, UNECE will also provide support to Albania in promoting urban resilience through its United Nations Development Account project “Urban economic and financial recovery and resilience building in the time of COVID-19”. The project will be implemented not only in Albania but in several other countries in the UNECE region as well in 2020-2021.
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