Chile’s government made a bold commitment in April of 2020: to slash their black carbon levels by a quarter before the end of the decade. The resolution was included in Chile’s revised Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which also stated that the country’s greenhouse gas emissions will peak by 2025. Including black carbon on top of their greenhouse gas commitments is a significant achievement that only three other countries have accomplished.
Black carbon is a powerful climate change force that only stays in the atmosphere for a few days or weeks. This means reducing it will have rapid effects on the rate of global warming, crucial in the race to keep levels below 1.5 degrees. It is also a component of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), a toxic air pollutant responsible for some 7 million premature deaths around the world every year. This means reducing it is also a global health priority.
Since 2015, Chile has worked closely with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) to integrate action on climate and clean air. It’s a strategy Chile has found particularly effective because acting on the two issues together improves the results of both and provides not just future benefits for the planet but also immediate benefits for every one of their citizens.
“Climate change can seem really general and it can be hard for people to see the ways that it affects them, but when you connect it to clean air and its direct effect on people— you see how it affects babies, how it affects older people, you can see pollution in the air— and provide a concrete goal for improving it, then you can really convince people,” said Maria Carolina Urmeneta Labarca, the head of the Office of Climate Change in Chile’s Ministry of Environment.
Chile’s contributions to global emissions are small, but it is faced with some of the worst impacts and meets seven of the UNFCCC’s nine criteria for climate change vulnerability. In Chile, air pollution causes 4,000 premature deaths per year — over a third of deaths from respiratory diseases — primarily from the high levels of fine particulate matter spewed into the air from vehicles and burning wood for heating and cooking.
“Air pollution puts a human face to climate change,” said Marcelo Mena Carrasco, Chile’s former Minister of the Environment who, during his time as a co-chair of the CCAC, set in motion a great deal of Chile’s actions.
He believes that showing the clear development benefits of climate and clean air actions and how they can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals will increase support for this work among politicians and industry leaders.
“Air pollution allows climate change to be seen through the eyes of the developing world. A lot of people think climate action is about solar panels and electric cars but really it’s about energy poverty and a lack of electrification,” said Mena. “We need to show people that this agenda to fight climate change allows us to have more electrification of heating and transportation, that it will get more people connected, it will get dirty fuel out of our homes, and it will help stop the pervasive negative health effects on women from cooking over fires inside their homes.”
Carbon neutrality in Chile would increase electrification of land transport from two per cent in 2020 to 61 per cent in 2050, and take industry from 23 per cent to 38 per cent in the same time period.
Politicians and industry leaders were swayed to support action because the upfront investment in short-lived climate pollutant mitigation pays for itself over the long term through healthcare savings and jump-starting development.
“This work is cost-effective for Chile because it is an opportunity. We have a big opportunity to grow, to improve the quality of life and to have good economic opportunities,” said Urmeneta. “It requires an investment, of course, but the savings are going to be so much greater than if we just continue what we are doing. That really was a key message.”
Research has found that the marginal cost of reducing carbon emissions in Chile would decrease from taking action on air pollution. This includes interventions like increasing the number of electric vehicles and improving heating and cooling in homes. In fact, the economic and social benefits of improved household heating and cooling would save over $1,000 per ton of CO2 reduced.
Acting on climate and clean air together also multiplies social benefits. Research shows that benefits to Chileans, like electrification and improved health could increase five times by integrating actions.
These arguments helped make the case for taking action but the country also needed data and evidence to confidently make decisions on which sectors to target, answering questions like: Which sectors emit the most black carbon? How much could each sector realistically reduce? What actions would deliver the greatest benefits?
“We had a very ambitious agenda on air pollution but we had limitations on the information needed to really fulfil this mandate,” Mena said. “The CCAC was really instrumental in increasing our capacity to develop black carbon emissions inventories and mitigation measures, and in helping us see the synergies in policies that both clean the air and reduce climate change.”
The CCAC helped Chile identify the most impactful priority areas. This included developing regulations for public and private transportation, working with communities to improve household energy efficiency, and setting emissions and air quality standards for the main industrial emitters.
Mena says that some of the institutional knowledge of the simple and cost effective ways to reduce emissions—from how cleaner brick kiln production increases productivity and creates a better quality product while also reducing pollution, to the simple filters that can be fitted for heavy duty vehicles to dramatically reduce their emissions— are thanks to the CCAC’s support.
“The CCAC put this issue on the agenda at the highest levels so when you approach politicians and industry leaders about taking action on short-lived climate pollutants it makes sense to them and they’re ready to listen because the CCAC has already started this conversation,” said Urmeneta. “They helped us develop the studies and get the information we needed for our revised NDC, and that combination is why we have this commitment.”
All of this work has catalysed significant progress, including implementing a series of pollution taxes that integrate air pollution and climate change. This includes a 2017 General Tax Reform Bill that taxed per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent and a local pollution tax that targets local pollutants based on how much environmental damage they cause and a car tax based on each car’s expected emissions. Overall, these taxes have cut particulate matter emissions by 80 per cent in the power sector and 95 per cent in the agro-industrial sector.
Chile’s capital, Santiago, was also a flagship leader of BreatheLife, a CCAC campaign that integrates public health and climate change to improve air pollution and further development goals. The Santiago Respira program has updated the city’s heating systems, mass transit fleet, and sanitary waste management. These activities, along with 14 other pollution control programmes, have decreased national emergency room visits by 500,000, a 17 per cent drop.
Chile is also a regional pioneer when it comes to vehicle emissions standards. In 2018, Santiago became the first city in Latin America to adopt Euro VI emissions standards for its public transportation system. This laid the groundwork for electric bus fleets. By 2020, Santiago had over 400 electric buses and by 2035 they aim to be fully electric. As a result of this work, Santiago’s particulate matter emissions fell by 27.6 per cent.
“When you are a developing country, it can be hard to see what’s in it for you to have ambitious climate targets,” said Mena. “Most developing countries see climate change as something caused by big emitters and don’t think that their efforts will be what moves the needle.”
“Focusing on air pollution is a much stronger narrative because there’s a lot in it for developing countries. Cleaner air reduces premature mortality and immediately increases productivity. At the same time, it builds on synergies that allow you to do things that you wouldn’t have done otherwise, had you acted on climate and clean air separately.”