Cleaning the air, greening Chile’s recovery

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By Marcelo Mena
Editor's note: The following is from Issue 22.
Air pollution is a permanent and underestimated threat to the wellbeing of people. It kills 7 million people a year, mostly from lower income communities. And those who are impacted most are those who have least contributed to the problem.
In Chile, starting in 2012 a new and more stringent air pollution regulation came online, the PM2.5 standard, which was adopted mirroring the European Union (EU) standard. Once measurements started to come in, we saw that nearly 90 percent of our population exceeds this standard. We learned that Chile was home to some of the dirtiest air in Latin America, and that places like Coyhaique have the worst air on the South American continent.
In 2014, I worked in developing the air quality management plan for Chile, which the environmental minister Pablo Badenier launched with President Bachelet and the public health minister Helia Molina. We took immediate measures to reduce pollution, such as banning wood burning stoves in multiple cities where the air was bad. These measures have continued to this day. Pollution has dropped substantially in many cities. And the reduction of respiratory disease has been huge. In the cities where we have air regulations emergency room visits have dropped 17 percent in comparison to a 7 percent increase in cities which don’t. This is even higher for children under the age of 4, with their visits due to bronchial obstruction plummeting by 75 percent. In 2019, we witnessed nearly half a million-emergency room visits less per year, of which 80 percent have been children less than 14-years-old. Indeed, our actions have benefited our kids the most.
Yet, we are far from done. Many cities in Chile suffer some 150 bad air days each winter. We need to increase our programs substantially. We have committed to changing out 190,000 wood burning stoves nationally, but currently we are only doing 10,000 per year.  Home insulation is key too. Retrofit programs create jobs and investments for small businesses across the entire country. These projects create about 20,000 jobs per year.
The green recovery provides a new opportunity to address air pollution. If we raise our target to changing out 50,000 stoves and thereby retrofit 50,000 homes per year, we can create 100,000 jobs per year. We can vitalize a construction sector that has reduced its activity by 13 percent since the present economic crisis began. We can reduce emissions and lower energy costs for our nation’s poorest. This is both a fiscal stimulus opportunity as much as a social protection opportunity.
We can expand electric buses across the country. We have seen their benefits in reducing pollution, but also operation costs. We save 70 cents on the dollar per kilometer covered by these buses and can easily overcome their increased capital costs in just a few years. These buses have cleaner indoor air, have less noise, and can reduce exposure to Covid-19 during our recovery due to their air handling systems.
We need to also consider that we are in a sanitary crisis that is related to our unbalanced relationship to the environment. We are also heading to a foreseeable and avoidable climate crisis. The consensus is that a net zero emissions target is achievable, and profitable. We must therefore heed the warning, and shift course, investing in our children’s future by protecting them from the present threat of air pollution. We have the evidence; we have the experience. We need to do more, and much faster. 
We have a decision to make. We can continue on a path that we know will lead to devastation and suffering, or instead, think ahead, turn around, and take the sustainability path by adopting a new identity like the Costa Ricans have done so well. Pura Vida, they say. Aire limpio, is the way.
The author, Marcelo Mena, was Chile's minister of the environment during the 2014-2018 Michelle Bachelet government. 

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