On the 16th April 2012 the World Economic Forum brought together 150 leaders from civil society, business and government in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, at the Sustainable Growth Summit, a lead-in to the Forum’s larger Latin America regional meeting that starts today.

Sustainable Growth Summit Co-Chairs Jordy Herrera, Mexican Minister for Energy, and Martin Senn, CEO of Zurich Insurance Group kicked off the discussion on an optimistic tone, highlighting the substantial progress that countries like Mexico and Brazil have made in advancing sustainable solutions such as renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Martin Senn said that challenges like building up infrastructure and improving resource efficiency presented tremendous opportunities for companies, particularly given the relatively stable economic performance of the region. Minister Herrera explained the success that Mexico’s three-pronged approach to energy efficiency has delivered at the household, building and industrial levels. Tempering this optimism was Leo Schlesinger, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and CEO of Masisa Mexico, a furniture company that has made a profitable business through sustainably sourcing its wood.  He reminded the group that Latin America’s continued heavy focus on commodities was a threat, as it perpetuates inequitable growth.

There were six breakout discussions throughout the day, focusing on sustainable solutions for transport, energy, water and agriculture, oil and gas, and financing green growth. Government ministers interacted with international financial institutions, leading businesses and NGO heads to debate whether models from other regions could be applied to a Latin American setting, and to identify specific challenges and opportunities to develop new regional models for sustainable growth.

There was a sense of urgency in the air, driven in part by the fast-approaching Rio+20 summit and Mexican-hosted G20, which will focus on green growth. Participants asked whether Latin America was ready to lead, with some voicing frustration about the lack of tangible proposals for these events.

Throughout the day a number of common themes surfaced and were voiced at the closing plenary:

  • Is there truly a “Latin American” region? The countries in the region are in fact moving at different speeds and require different solutions.
  • Climate change impacts are already being felt in the region, but few countries have a plan (or the resources) to prepare for severe weather events or the impacts on agriculture and infrastructure that can be expected.
  • Financing green growth is key, but government cannot fund the transition alone. There are ways to strategically target public funds to reduce risk and attract greater private investment.
  • Fossil fuel subsidies are a strong barrier to advancing greener technologies; more needs to be done to phase out or redirect these subsidies toward cleaner alternatives. Can we develop transition plans to avoid the political fallout that might result?
  • Given the complexity of sustainable growth, government cannot solve problems alone; it is time for a new approach to solving sustainability problems, one which recognizes the equal role that companies must take in a true public-private partnership.
  • Equally important is figuring out ways to engage and empower small companies, farmers, consumers and communities to take action and create solutions from the bottom up.
  • Latin American countries need to have the confidence to lead on the global stage, particularly with upcoming high-level sustainability summits.

The Sustainable Growth Summit came to a close with the World Economic Forum committing to help facilitate much needed public-private-community partnerships through the creation of neutral space for collaboration and innovating new models that are suitable for scale-up. These and other solutions will be highlighted in June at the Rio+20 and G20 events.

Author: Thomas Kerr is Director of Climate Change Initiatives, World Economic Forum.

Pictured: Wind mills are seen on an eolic farm in the “Sierra de Caracoles” place in Maldonado, 170 km (106 miles) east of Montevideo. REUTERS/Andres Stapff