For Clean Air and a Safe Climate Future

06/30/2015 02:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016

Air quality issues still plague our cities. The World Health Organization recently passed a resolution stating that it is the biggest single environmental health risk, as 8 million people die due to both indoor and outdoor air pollution. Most of this is related to dirty cheap solid fuels. But recently we've seen air quality issues come to the forefront of the environmental discussion in European cities. Indeed, the approval of more stringent air quality standards focusing on PM2.5, fine particulate matter, has revealed that while most countries have made substantial reductions on these pollutants, we are far from reaching clean air.

Western countries have faced the issue in different ways. Some countries focused on air pollution without facing climate pollutants, and other countries focused on climate pollutants and not air pollutants. The first countries have lower air quality issues but have substantial CO2 emissions. The latter countries have reduced CO2 emissions but have longstanding air pollution issues. Gasoline and diesel policies are related to this dichotomy. But I believe you can tackle both issues at a time. Air pollution and climate change. A safe climate, and clean air should be our goal.

Chile's environmental taxes both have local and global emissions incorporated in them. New cars are taxed based on their CO2 and NOx emissions, and we project diesel vehicles cut their participation from 12 to 9 percent of new cars. And all cars will have lower CO2 emissions. Our power plant emission tax is a function of CO2 emissions at 5USD/ton, but has a variable cost based on local externalities due to PM, NOx and SOx emissions. The tax is projected to reduce CO2 emissions in 11 percent by 2030. Air pollution and climate change are integrated in our taxes for the two sectors we project to have largest growth of emissions.

In 2014 we launched an air quality strategy to tackle air pollution in 13 areas in Chile, addressing 87 percent of the health risk due to air pollution on a national level. Cities which you may have never heard of, because despite their small size, most people use wood burning to heat and cool, such as Coyhaique, Talca, Curicó or Osorno. We've been able to manage air quality episodes through targeted bans on wood burning, but we know we need more structural measures focusing on home insulation and heater overhaul. The result will be that we'll change out 30 percent of heaters in the Central South of Chile, alongside with retrofitting home insulation in 30 percent of homes and a reduction of 70 percent of PM2.5 emissions. For every dollar we spend on these plans we'll save 4 on health costs, and one will be saved by those benefited by the measure. These are substantial social and health benefits.

In 2015 we adopted a PM2.5 standard for air quality management in Santiago, which revealed that bad air occurred 1 of 3 winter days, instead of 1 every two weeks. We started to bring back strong measures on cleaning the air, such as restricting 20 percent to 40 percent of private transportation, and curtailing industrial emissions of dirtier point sources. We established bus only lanes to prioritize public transportation. Total transportation times in Santiago have been reduced between 10 and 25 percent, and bus lanes went 40 percent faster than previous days. Indeed, air quality issues have shown us that when space is limited, supporting public transportation is not only good for the environment, but also society as a whole, and decreased transportation times are better for quality of life.

Despite the fact that we are taking measures that impact how people transport and heat themselves we've received a lot of support from citizens. People feel that taking part of being a solution is a duty. We hear of children telling their parents not to grill because it is a bad air day. We see people sharing their cars, using public transportation. We even see our Minister of the Interior show up to work on his bike.

All these measures have climate benefits too. Reduced CO2 emissions, methane emissions, ozone formation and of course soot emissions. And soot is known to be a short-lived climate pollutant what warms the local environment. So if we remove soot we will be able to reduce the increase temperature of our own cities. Not depending on global reductions, and at a strong health benefit.

So in the end we see that climate change is our largest global environmental threat for the present and future. And air quality poses an unacceptable global health risk. And we must face both at the same time. And that's why Chile has included short-lived climate pollutants in their INDC. It's the efficient, smart and most cost effective way to face our global challenge... clean air for a safe climate. For all.