Episode 6: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Welcome to the Daring Cities podcast, where we talk to urban leaders around the world who are taking radical climate action to prepare for, adapt to and tackle the climate emergency. Today we visit Buenos Aires, Argentina. The country’s capital has been a pioneer on climate action in Latin America for over a decade. Now Buenos Aires is accelerating the pace of its green transition, in spite of the country’s strict COVID-19 lockdown and a challenging economy.

Show notes

  • Host: Julia Scott
  • Produced by: ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability
  • Music credits: Ketsa, Chad Crouch

Episode 6: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Episode transcript

Julia Scott: [00:00:05] On this episode of Daring Cities, we visit Buenos Aires, Argentina. The country’s capital already has a reputation as one of the most liveable cities in the world. It’s also been a pioneer on climate action in Latin America for over a decade.

Renzo Morosi: [00:00:21] We know that this is an urgent problem, and we want to face this problem so that people can live better. We want to make our action plan an inclusive one to make the city and its people more resilient to climate change.

Julia Scott: [00:00:39] Now Buenos Aires is accelerating the pace of its green transition in spite of the country’s strict COVID-19 lockdown and a challenging economy.

Renzo Morosi: [00:00:52] We expect that the economic recovery will be driven by green technology, by the circular economy and by a concern with climate change.

Julia Scott: [00:01:16] Welcome to the Daring Cities podcast, where we talk to urban leaders around the world who are taking radical climate action to prepare for, adapt to, and tackle the climate emergency. Cities are taking daring steps towards solving the climate crisis and finding ways to navigate opposition to — and support from — unexpected places as they go. I’m your host, Julia Scott.

Julia Scott: [00:01:41] Daring Cities is produced by ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability. ICLEI is a global network of more than 2,000 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development. We drive local action for low-emission, nature-based, equitable, resilient and circular urban development.

Julia Scott: [00:02:05] Buenos Aires has always had its own way of doing things. It’s been an autonomous district within Argentina since 1880. It’s not a part of Buenos Aires province. It is beholden to no one but itself. So when city leaders started making serious strides on climate change about 10 years ago, it was instantly in a league of its own.

Renzo Morosi: [00:02:25] Buenos Aires has always been a pioneer in Latin America and is also a pioneer in terms of climate change action. This is why the city has no problem in taking on ambitious goals in our own city and in our region here in South America, as well as ambitious goals in terms of the world.

Julia Scott: [00:02:59] Renzo Morosi came to Buenos Aries as a student 25 years ago and never left. He heads up the city’s Environmental Protection Agency. Under his tenure, Buenos Aires became the first Latin American city to convert 100 percent of its street lighting to LEDs, which led to significant energy savings. Buenos Aires has been an ICLEI member since 2004. It’s a signatory of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, and it’s aligned with the Paris Agreement goals, having declared a commitment to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Julia Scott: [00:03:32] But that’s not how things started. They started with problems in need of a practical solution. Flooding is a huge problem in Buenos Aires. Flash floods killed 10 people in 2013, And rainfall is only expected to get more out of control. At first, no one made the connection to climate change, but the fatalities were a big wake-up call, says Mr. Morosi.

Renzo Morosi: [00:04:06] And that was because of intense rainfall. Mostly it was greater than 110 millimeters, more than the average. In the beginning, no one was actually conscious that this had something to do with climate change. So we started working strongly in order to create awareness regarding these specific problems.

Julia Scott: [00:04:34] Many of the city’s low income residents live in precarious and highly crowded housing in flood plains. It’s a heavily paved city. When water gets into upland areas, it has nowhere to go. And a lot of natural creeks have been paved over. The city developed a major flood control plan that also includes restoring green space to the banks of the La Plata estuary and throughout the city… Actions which also happen to reduce the urban heat island effect and absorb CO2.

Julia Scott: [00:05:02] Likewise, the LED upgrades were initially meant to save money and be more efficient. But the side effect was that it cut energy consumption in half and ultimately it changed outdoor life in the city.

Renzo Morosi: [00:05:16] So now we see that our public spaces are used more by the population because they have more easy access to all of those spaces. And this has also increased the safety and the security, because of better lighting and of improved use of the public spaces.

Julia Scott: [00:05:33] The metropolitan area of Buenos Aires is the third biggest in Latin America, with 15 million. When it has something to say, other cities listen a couple more times.

Renzo Morosi: [00:05:49] Of course, all cities in Latin America, or at least most of them, are actually trying to contribute with regards to emissions, energy and transportation, as well as waste.

Julia Scott: [00:06:01] Renzo Morosi says those are the big three issues that challenge his city to get to its goal of becoming climate neutral by 2050. Early on, city leaders decided that it would be most efficient to tackle all three by making every city program or decision answerable to the question of how it would mitigate the effects of climate change. That was a big change. It didn’t happen overnight.

Renzo Morosi: [00:06:29] The challenge that we faces with this strategy was mainly to internalize the need to do something against climate change. So for that, we created a climate change cabinet so that the needs for climate change would be considered by all areas in government.

Julia Scott: [00:06:49] Can I just say I love the idea of a climate change cabinet? But that was just the beginning. The city has doubled down on transparency by holding workshops where officials present their action plans and then ask for suggestions.

Renzo Morosi: [00:07:10] The second challenge was to share the plan with the different departments of government and also to share it with civil society. For this, we created a consulting board that included many experts from academia, and we also felt the need to listen to young people. And so many NGOs were included in our hearings so that we could make decisions in a very broad way by including as many social actors as possible.

Julia Scott: [00:07:46] Buenos Aires is already on its third climate action plan. But the city isn’t in charge of all the factors at play, any more than it can control when the next rainstorm sweeps in. When it comes to the energy mix, Buenos Aires is still plugged into a system that mostly burns coal, natural gas and oil. And energy is easily the largest source of emissions in Buenos Aires, says Mr. Morosi.

Renzo Morosi: [00:08:12] Energy is the area which is creating the most impact in Buenos Aires. And this is where we see our greatest challenge. First of all, we need to start changing citizens’ habits, and that has to do with a change of culture in the long term. We are trying to work and implement a strategy that has to do with the decarbonisation of the national energy matrix. Because Buenos Aires is not enough — we need to start working on this nationwide.

Julia Scott: [00:08:49] The city is looking to forge relationships with private industry and the construction sector when it comes to green technology and new buildings, and to codify those building standards. But as Mr. Morosi sees it, the major challenge — household consumption — is also the greatest opportunity… Because habits are changeable.

Julia Scott: [00:09:12] But changing citizens’ habits starts with the people themselves. When I asked him to describe Buenos Aires, the first word Mr. Morosi used was ‘intense.’ Buenos Aires has made a massive effort to get citizens out of cars and into the streets. The city transformed its widest avenue into a bus rapid transit hub and doubled its bike sharing system to 4,000 bicycles at 400 stations.

Renzo Morosi: [00:09:44] All these changes came about specifically regarding mobility. In the last three years, 250 kilometres of bicycle lanes have been built and the streets therefore have changed radically. So there are places in town that only bikes can actually circulate. We also started giving priority to pedestrians in certain neighborhoods. Only people can walk around in what we call the micro downtown center.

Julia Scott: [00:10:17] Today, the goal of the Buenos Aires Camina Plan is nothing less than turning a city that was mostly built for cars into one that is made for people. It’s centered around the idea that every citizen of Buenos Aires should have everything they need within a 15-minute walk. Neighborhoods everywhere have new walking paths, public spaces and amenities.

Renzo Morosi: [00:10:43] The two major streets of Buenos Aires now have exclusive bike lanes, and public spaces now have food service and other activities to make this space more pleasurable to enjoy, and to make it more and more favorable to walking.

Julia Scott: [00:11:02] The city government has been changing its habits, too. Buenos Aires is the only Latin American city that’s part of the Global Lead City Network on Sustainable Procurement, an ICLEI-led initiative that helped it launch a sustainable procurement plan that considers the supply chain for products and materials the city acquires. As one of the largest economies in Latin America, it has considerable power over what to purchase.

Renzo Morosi: [00:11:31] And so every time a government has to buy something, they go into this registry that gives priority to companies or products with a lower environmental impact, or that are green companies or green products.

Julia Scott: [00:11:49] On the other side of the coin, the city has cut back its landfill waste by 50 percent within the framework of a circular economy that trains workers to look for wood, plastic and glass that can have a second life.

Renzo Morosi: [00:12:08] Glass is being used to build, for example, sidewalks and other public equipment, and plastic has been used to build fences or traffic signs or even benches — park benches in parks. So these are examples of how the circular economy is fostered by the city.

Julia Scott: [00:12:38] Rather than knocking Buenos Aires off its game, Mr. Morosi says the COVID-19 pandemic has actually sped up certain aspects of its climate plan, such as its green corridors and a focus on clean gathering spaces and trees. It means finding green solutions that focus on lifting up low-income communities who are hardest hit by the virus. Here’s an example.

Renzo Morosi: [00:13:04] The people who were most affected and lost their jobs became the most vulnerable in their own neighborhoods, and we were actually already looking for how to help them with this idea of green gardening or organic gardening. We are working strongly to recover the economy and employment, and we are trying to use what we call organic harvesting and family harvesting so that we can help those who are more in need.

Julia Scott: [00:13:33] Through its Ministry of Social Development, Buenos Aires is focusing on helping its most vulnerable residents, especially women, find productive self-employment and add value to the economy. So far, the city has located 10 large urban lots that are slated for future gardens. It’s a start.

Renzo Morosi: [00:13:57] But despite or in addition to the problems that we see, we also see opportunities to rethink our development model, because this pandemic has shown that there are big differences among our population, big inequalities. And if our climate plan is not a plan that considers social inclusion, we will not be successful.

Julia Scott: [00:14:25] Buenos Aires has survived numerous wars, revolutions, coups, dictatorships and economic crises. COVID-19 and climate change are crises of a different sort. But this city, in a way, is built for hard problems like these.

Renzo Morosi: [00:14:40] Sometimes living in a country or a city with the constant cyclic crises is a strength. When I think about what’s coming for the future, I see something that is very intense. The effects of climate change are undeniable. And maybe as a city and population, we have become very, very resilient because of all of the crisis we face so far in our history. And that is the part of the legacy we have and we can pass on to other countries.

Julia Scott: [00:15:24] Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Daring Cities podcast. Daring Cities is produced by me, Julia Scott, with engineering help from Chris Hoff.  Special thanks to Renzo Morosi from Buenos Aires, and to Flavia Castelhano, Anna Del Mar, Fernanda Kalena, Barbara Godoy, Everica Rivera and Ariel Dekovic from ICLEI.