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This post originally appeared in UN Environment's 'UNEP Stories'.
Using firewood to heat homes releases toxic fumes that adversely affect people’s health. Chile is tackling this as part of a strategy to confront one of its biggest environmental challenges - air pollution.
Firewood produces as much as 94 per cent of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions in some Chilean cities, according to the Ministry of Environment. But lack of money is preventing many households from switching to cleaner energy sources or changing their 30-year-old heaters and stoves.
In winter, when there is little rain or no wind to wash way the smog, the air becomes unbearable in cities like Santiago, which is in a valley, where particulate matter gets trapped.
Every year in Chile, air pollution costs the health sector at least $670 million and is the root cause of the 127,000 emergency health consultations and more than 4,000 premature deaths.
To address this challenge, in 2014, the Government launched a programme in the centre-south region to replace 200,000 firewood heaters with more energy-efficient heaters such as new gas, paraffin or wood pellet-based heaters. This has resulted in a reduction in emissions and improved indoor air quality.
Toxic emissions from old firewood heaters can be double those of a pellet-based heater, and three times those of a paraffin-based heater, the Chilean Ministry of Environment estimates.
“The new heater improves our living conditions. Not only is it cheap, more importantly it contributes to reducing air pollution in our community, Coyhaique,” said Ramón Soto Vidal, who received a paraffin heater.
“I think this is a really clean alternative, and is great for apartments… Firewood is impractical and it pollutes our air, which is worrisome,” said Raquel Fuica, from Osorno, a city in the centre-south region of the country where fine particulate matter can be higher than Santiago’s, mainly because of firewood.
Another beneficiary in Osorno, Verónica Nahuel, invited her neighbours who are still using solid fuels to apply for the heater replacement programme. “This way we can do our bit and contribute to clean the air of our city, which is one of the most polluted in the country.”
The country has started to enjoy the results of these and other efforts.
“This year we have seen the effects and the benefits of atmospheric decontamination plans that we did not notice in previous years, due to drought and bad ventilation conditions,” says Environment Minister Marcelo Mena.
Mena revealed that between 1 April and 29 June 2017 severe air pollution episodes in the main cities of the centre-south region were 45 per cent lower than in the same period of 2016.
Episodes occur when high concentrations of airborne particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) pose a risk to human health. Currently 10 million people are exposed to an average concentration of fine particles (particulate matter of 2.5 microns) above 10 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3), a level deemed unsafe by the World Health Organization.
“Severe episodes are down by almost half in a great part of Chile... A transformation towards a cleaner heating has begun, is irreversible and has allowed both the State and citizens to collaborate to clean the air in the cities,” says the Minister.
The Government also subsidizes insulation in low and middle income households as part of a programme that attempts to annualy improve the housing conditions of 100,000 families. Insulation reduces the demand for heating by 30 percent, which means lower bills and emissions, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs estimates.
Local is global
Energy use in homes is one of Chile’s main sources of short-lived climate pollutants, which the country has been trying to reduce as part of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition since 2012. This is an international voluntary alliance hosted by UN Environment, comprising governments, international organizations and businesses with the goal of reducing methane, black carbon and hydrofluorocarbon emissions.
“Local pollution [in cities and towns] today begins to have relevance at a global level in the context of climate change,” says Mena. “If we are capable of tackling short-lived contaminants, we will reduce the sustained increase of planetary temperature and have a safe climatic future with a less than 1.5° C increase.”
Chile has committed to reducing short-lived climate pollutants as part of its contribution to the Paris Agreement.
The Government has also managed to reduce pollution through taxation: a 2014 vehicle emissions tax saw emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide drop by 30 per cent between 2015 and 2016; and tax relief was introduced for imports of less polluting vehicles that comply with ‘Euro 6’ standards, says Mena.
Chile has demonstrated a strong commitment to the Breathe Life Campaign, a joint initiative led by the World Health Organization, UN Environment and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition to mobilize cities and individuals to protect our and the planet’s health from the effects of air pollution. Its main goal is to achieve the World Health Organization’s air quality targets by 2030.
Santiago has been leading the way with its Santiago Respira campaign since 2014, which aims to decrease global emissions of particulate matter by 60 per cent.