Guest Article #60

Clean Air and Climate Change Mitigation

The UN Environment Programme estimates that annually, one million people die prematurely around the World by being exposed to high levels of urban air pollution; this number represents about 114 premature deaths worldwide per hour. In Latin America, conservative estimates indicate that 35,000 people die prematurely annually from this exposure. All these deaths can and should be avoided.

The impact of air pollution on health also translates in very high medical expenses associated with respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, absenteeism, lost of productivity and serious damage to other living beings and the environment. In Latin America, the economic cost of the health impacts of air pollution is estimated between 2 and 4% of GDP.

In order to address this issue, different cities in the region have made significant progress on air quality management. During the past decade, major cities have developed air quality plans, have built emission inventories and have strengthened institutional capabilities to assess and control air pollution problems. Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Santiago de Chile, among others, are regional references of capacity building on air quality management. Other cities such as Curitiba and Bogota have advanced with the creation of innovative transportation systems that streamline the movement of people and reduce air emissions.

However, Latin American cities and countries still face a number of challenges. Most require greater technical capacity to assess the impacts of urban policy and transport in terms of emissions and climate change, better technology tools and business processes to reduce emissions and energy consumption, and greater resources to introduce innovative vehicle technologies and cleaner fuels.

Recent developments in the international negotiations on climate change should lay the foundations for increased mitigation efforts. Local and national governments in Latin America have signed important international agreements to combat climate change and reduce air pollution. The Cancun Declaration, agreed in 2010 by the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), represents consensus among most Latin American countries to take mitigation actions. This agreement has defined two mechanisms to facilitate financial and technical transfers that are fundamental to build local capabilities for climate mitigation. As regards the transport sector, the Green Fund and the Transfer Mechanism adopted in Cancun open a window of opportunity to fund and implement transport initiatives with great impacts on greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation and air pollution reduction.

It is also important to recognize the efforts carried out to reduce GHG emissions at the local level. Cities are responsible for 70% of the world energy consumption and for more than half of carbon dioxide emissions. Therefore, international agreements arranged by local governments are paramount to reduce global emissions. In this vein, I recognize the Mexico City Pact agreed during the World Conference of Mayors as the necessary framework since it identifies instruments to quantify, report and verify local actions to reduce GHGs.

At the regional level, a number of issues will need to be addressed to reduce air pollution and mitigate climate change. In particular, the dissemination of information and best practices should be increased to strengthen local capacities. A major theme of collaboration in the region, for example, is the standardization of vehicle emission and energy consumption norms. The region should also work in a coordinated manner to create transport strategies, which bring multiple benefits on air quality, health, population welfare, competitiveness and climate change.

The Clean Air Institute plays an important role in fostering the network process among key stakeholders in the region. The Conference on Clean Air 2011, which took place from 14-19 May 2011, in Rosario, Argentina, and complementary efforts that are taking place in Latin America should culminate in a regional agenda that embraces better dissemination of knowledge, efficient mechanisms for technical assistance and strong regional partnerships. I am confident that meetings such as the Rosario Conference represent steps towards the definition of concrete actions to address climate change and air pollution challenges.

The Clean Air Institute is a non-profit organization that was created as a result of an agreement between the World Bank and the members of the Clean Air Initiative for Latin America Cities. Its mission is to improve air quality and fight climate change caused by global warming and it serves as a forum for regional strategy and project development, as well as channeling training, technical assistance, and information exchange throughout Latin America.