The vaccine against climate change


Gustavo Máñez, UN Environment “The vaccine against climate change is the post-COVID recovery plans aligned with the Paris Agreement”.

Once Latin American and Caribbean states have addressed the health emergency, the region will face a period of economic depression. However, this emergency also Poses diverse opportunities to put the region on more sustainable and resilient paths. The following is an extract from an interview with Gustavo Máñez, Climate Change Coordinator at the UN Environment Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, about the report entitled: “Post-COVID19 Recovery", recently published thanks to the contribution of the European Union's EUROCLIMA+ programme, among others.

Why should Latin American and Caribbean governments integrate environmental sustainability into their economic recovery plans?

It is clear that Post-COVID-19 economic recovery plans will require large amounts of resources, which will increase the region's already high debt. But this pandemic is teaching us that today more than ever we need to incorporate sustainable and “climate-proof” solutions to improve the resilience of our societies and better prepare for the future.

Once we manage to get out of this public health situation, the economy will have to be reactivated and the vast majority of countries will have to make multi-million dollar investments, investments such as we have not seen before in history.

People must be kept working, incomes must be maintained, but the reality of the climate crisis in which we live must also be measured. The current and projected effects of climate change are real, permanent, and increasing in intensity: droughts, floods, hurricanes, losses in agricultural production, energy losses and exposure to an increase in pandemics. So, how to activate the economy and at the same time generate actions that protect us from climate change, is a UNIQUE opportunity that we have. Hence the need to integrate sustainability into post-COVID recovery plans.

Could you describe the main climate solutions that need to be integrated into these recovery plans?

We have prioritised five actions that aim to help countries respond comprehensively. I am referring to activating their economies, to generating decent jobs through the promotion of technologies, and practices that protect us against climate change.


The first of these has to do with "Energy Efficiency" and "Renewable Energies". In our latest Latin American report entitled "Zero Carbon", we calculated that if all electricity generation were done using renewable energy, we could generate around 35 million jobs throughout the Latin American region. This would not only avoid CO2 emissions; it would also energise the economy with jobs that are well paid.

In addition, renewable energy and energy efficiency are technologies that generate electricity at lower costs. So, it is totally unjustifiable to return to investments in fossil fuels.

Thanks to energy efficiency technologies, the region could save nearly 8 billion dollars in electricity bills by 2030, creating lots of decent jobs and economic activation.

The other solution that we must incorporate is electric mobility. We must ensure clean air and we will achieve this if we are able to electrify the transport fleets, both public and private.

Recent studies by Harvard University have shown a link between deaths from COVID-19 and highly polluted cities. So, not only do we have to make this transition to mitigate climate change, we must also improve air quality and increase our resilience to future pandemics. What kind of streets are we going to return to after the quarantines? What we had before were contaminated streets that make us vulnerable to the pandemic.


With only a comprehensive transition to electrical transport the region could generate some 5.3 million jobs. A scenario of 100% electrification of transportation in the region by 2050 would reduce total energy demand by nearly 2 billion barrels of oil, which is equivalent to the demand for all of Canada. Electrifying road transport across the region would save 369 billion dollars by 2050 because we would reduce fuel and operating costs by making the electric car three times more efficient than the internal combustion engine.

The third big opportunity we see is with the issue of fossil fuel subsidies in the region. According to the latest data, about 2% of domestic product goes to fossil fuel subsidies, which in turn perpetuate climate change.

The fall in oil prices also gives us the opportunity to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. We could now redirect these resources to zero emission technologies, such as unconventional renewable energy. We can use these resources to generate green jobs that would also boost the economy. It is also a good time to consider a carbon tax that would increase state revenues at a time when the region's public coffers will be empty.  

The fourth major area has to do with our agricultural production systems, we need healthy ecosystems. Science tells us that the origin of COVID-19 has to do with the bad relationship between humans and nature. If we implement nature-based techniques or solutions, we can continue to have productivity, but maintaining forests, using living fences, doing irrigation; these measures -among others- would help us conserve water and be better prepared to face climate change, as well as increase agricultural productivity and therefore food security


Finally, the fifth big opportunity is in urban areas, in our cities. About 80% of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean lives in urban centres. This is where the most serious effects of climate change will be felt most strongly. So how do we make these Latin American cities more resilient to rising sea levels, to flooding, to hurricanes, to rising temperatures, which the island effect makes more intense in the cities? We will need green architecture and engineering, which will also generate many new jobs and make us more resilient to the climate and future pandemics.

Right now, from my house here in Panama City, I am looking all those roofs and huge areas of unused land. That land could be producing agricultural products, or rooftops covered with solar panels generating electricity and sending the excess unused electricity in each building to the grid; the owners could be selling that electricity to the grid and generating income.

How can international organisations support the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean in achieving this transition?

The UN Environment Programme is putting specific figures on the table about the benefit each country would have if it made the transition in these five major areas. We are calculating how many jobs can be generated with the transition to electric mobility, how much this would mean in the dynamization of the annual gross domestic product, and how much would it increase the competitiveness of the companies in the region?  We are exploring what the links are between these economic reactivation plans and the climate commitments, which the vast majority of the countries are going to present by the end of 2020. These plans cannot be seen in isolation from this post-COVID-19 economic reactivation, since public funds are going to go towards reconstruction, and we have to link these plans to this economic revival. And we are already doing this in some countries in the region.

However, UN Environment is part of EUROCLIMA+, and this European Union programme is aptly called upon to support countries in the area of climate change.


It is clear that the European Union seeks to collaborate with Latin America in finding sustainable climate solutions. Furthermore, we must not forget that the European Union is giving super clear signals by linking this economic reactivation to the Green Pact, the "European Green Deal", and that the Green Deal will be the essential pillar for the post-COVID-19 recovery in Europe. In the European Union there have already been ministerial statements to this effect, and the President of the European Commission herself, Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen, has said so as well.

Therefore, all this knowledge of approaches, technologies, and ways of doing things in Europe, focused on the design of solutions tailored to the Latin American context, is something we should take advantage of. In EUROCLIMA+, agencies such as ECLAC, UN Environment and five other European agencies are called upon to contribute in this context. And in this sense it is vital for us to give an integrated response. We can support not only in designing these post-COVID-19 economic recovery plans in a climate-smart way, but also in linking concrete investments through European multilateral banks; for example, the European Investment Bank, which is a European entity, the largest multilateral development bank in the world that could concretely invest in these 5 major areas of opportunity, for example.  

EUROCLIMA+ has the capacity as a European cooperation entity to bring all European actors together with the United Nations, and to provide specific solutions adapted to the needs of the region.

Download in Spanish and English the brochure entitled: The post COVID-19 recovery