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The Chilean cities of Talca, Concepción, Hualqui and Chiguayante are the latest in a growing global network of cities committed to meeting strict World Health Organization (WHO) air quality targets. As the newest member of the global BreatheLife campaign – a Climate and Clean Air Coalition initiative led by the WHO and UN Environment – the four cities are working to protect the environment and health of their citizens from the effects of air pollution.
The cities’ quest for cleaner air is part of a nationwide push by the administration of President Michelle Bachelet. When Bachelet took office in 2014, she made tackling air pollution a national priority. Chile has continued to lead the way internationally with Santiago becoming a flagship BreatheLife city in 2016.
The four new cities are focusing on a range of initiatives designed to improve air quality. This includes efforts to reduce pollution from burning wood for cooking and heating, improved air quality monitoring, move to cleaner energy sources, protect air quality beneficial eco-systems, improve waste management and adopt sustainable transport systems.
The city of Talca is contributing to Chile’s broader effort with a plan that reflects Talca’s unique culture and geography. The city of 280,000 is taking steps to reduce pollution from wood fires used for home heating. Wood fires are responsible for 76 percent of particulate matter emissions, a particularly harmful type of air pollution. The air quality gets bad during the winter months, when people turn to wood fires to warm their homes.
Talca’s air quality strategy is focused on reducing smoke from firewood and includes measures such as improved weatherization and thermal insulation of homes, overhauling wood stoves, and replacing outdated heaters.
During periods of especially poor air quality the Chilean government places special restrictions on emission sources. In Talca, this means stricter emissions standards for both houses and vehicles during the winter months from April to September. In Talca these restrictions are already showing results. In 2013, before the air quality plan was adopted, officials observed 199 hours where air quality reached “emergency” levels. In 2016, there were only five hours.
“I am very satisfied with the results obtained during 2016,” says Maria Eliana Vega, Seremi del Medio Ambiente, Región del Maule. “I am pleased to see how the joint work of the citizens and the regional government have allowed us to reduce air pollution and improve the quality of life of Talquinas families. Our commitment is to continue implementing and promoting the measures established in the Atmospheric Decontamination Plan (or PDA - Plan de Descontaminación Atmosférica – in Spanish) so that Talca can breathe fresh air again.”
A couple of hours south of Talca, three cities in the Greater Concepción region are also working to improve air quality.
Concepción, a city of 225,000 residents, is focusing its air quality efforts on clean energy, improved management of household waste, and green transportation such as bicycles. The city is also launching a local pollution monitoring system to enable more efficient local responses.
The community of Hualqui, part of Greater Concepción, and the center of a local effort to preserve biodiversity in the Nonguén National Reserve, has air pollution days caused by forest fires and is looking to improve air quality by protecting ecosystems. Hualqui is also installing local air quality monitoring stations to help fight pollution and track local progress.
“We join the BreatheLife campaign to endorse good practices to reduce air pollution and develop clean energy,” said Mackarena Araneda from the Hualqui Local Economic Development Office.
The city of Chiguayante, which is located between Concepción and Hualqui on the Bíobío River, is also looking to protect local ecosystems in order to promote air quality.
“Through BreatheLife, Chiguayante will protect the forests and water bodies in the commune, promote clean energy, and advance our local monitoring of contaminants to combat them more efficiently,” said Francisco Araneda, from the Chiguayante Environment Unit.
Speaking at the Concepción launch, Helena Molin Valdes, Head of the UN Environment hosted Climate and Clean Air Coalition Secretariat, said that cities should move toward cleaner household energy sources as indoor smoke can cause serious respiratory diseases, especially for at risk groups like children and the elderly. Ms Molin Valdes was on hand to welcome all four cities to the BreatheLife campaign.
The Working Group of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition are currently meeting in Santiago, Chile.
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