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OPINION: A new look at La Paz

Also posted in Spanish

Sam Bickersteth, CDKN’s Chief Executive, finds promise in the ‘green shoots’ of city-level climate action in Bolivia, which could catalyse broader moves toward sustainability.

The best way to travel around the city of La Paz, Bolivia these days is the newly installed teleferico or cable car. There are now three lines operating, which carry people cleanly, quickly, quietly and safely over the rooftops of the city at low cost.    Workers, students, businesspeople and tourists are using these fabulous new integrated transport lines that link the city of El Alto to the lowest parts of La Paz in one of the longest cable car rides in the world.   It seems likely that the cable car will further support the social and economic integration of this part of Bolivia that has seen much change under the Presidency of Evo Morales.

This low-carbon form of travel provides environmental benefits that could be the portent of a more sustainable economy.   Instead, Bolivia’s economy is presently booming thanks to gas and mineral exports.  Whilst the value of earth’s riches is enshrined in Bolivia’s 2012 Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, alarmingly high rates of environmental destruction are underway. Bolivia has the highest rate of tropical forest loss per capita in the world, 40% of its glaciers have melted and despite a national abundance of water resources (one quarter of the Amazon flows from Bolivia) in cities like La Paz, almost no wastewater is treated.    The views from the cable car over the city are spectacular but the sight of the untreated water courses below shows one of Bolivia’s emerging challenges.

CDKN has been working with a Bolivian partner, SASA Bolivia, to open up discussions on climate change and environmental issues in the cities of La Paz, Quito and Lima.  There has been a positive reception to the carbon and water footprinting results by the La Paz Municipality, whose leaders are keen to draw on the data collected to inform new approaches to energy and water use.   This relatively simple diagnostic tool has been easy to communicate and the city authority is now seeking to implement new measures around efficient lighting, green building codes and establishment of a water fund.  While concerns about water shortages, disaster and landslides are current, providing jobs and livelihoods come first and the CDKN project has been supporting community-level urban agriculture to supplement diets and income.    This city-led project has proved popular with many other mayors, and city authorities are now asking to replicate the approach.

The ambition in La Paz to address its critical environmental and water-related issues may be modest and the solutions currently on offer may not appear to offer the transformation needed to turn the tide of environmental destruction.  Yet they do constitute an important start based with an active service provider with a desire for action, the La Paz Municipality.

City-led climate compatible development is emerging in many countries and has a part to play in driving national ambition for policy change and action on climate.

Just as country governments are preparing declarations of their intended emissions cuts and other climate-related activities for the UN climate negotiations (known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) and this may stimulate national analysis and consultation on climate policies, so too it is hoped that subnational and urban actions will stimulate national initiatives  on climate change.

Read CDKN’s Inside Story about carbon and water footprinting in La Paz (Spanish).


Image: La Paz cable car view, courtesy Sam Bickersteth, CDKN.

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