Chile Air Quality Fact Sheet 2023

The wildfire season in Chile has started and has already destroyed hundreds of homes throughout the country. While the EU has also deployed over 250 emergency responders to help, many are still endangered as the flames continue to blaze.

Like many countries, Chile's contributions to global emissions are relatively small. Still, the country meets seven of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's 9 criteria for vulnerability and is faced with some of its worst impacts.

In Chile, air pollution causes 4,000 deaths per year—over a third from respiratory diseases—primarily from high levels of particulate matter from vehicles, wildfires, and woodburning stoves and heating systems.

Recent Air Quality Studies in Chile

In the past 40 years, air quality in Chile has become an issue of great concern. Santiago, the capital city with almost 7 million inhabitants (40% of the country's population), is located in a valley surrounded by mountains from the coastal and Andean ranges.

Every winter, this topography, along with an inverse temperature layer, little rain, and minimal airstream, results in a low dispersion rate, insufficient to cope with the progressively higher concentration of pollutants emitted.

By the early 1990s, Santiago had levels of air pollution comparable to megacities such as Sao Paulo and Mexico City, despite having barely one-third of the population. In Santiago, air quality monitoring began as early as 1974, and standards for criteria pollutants were established in 1978. However, regulatory plans only started in 1990.

Then in 2004, air monitoring expanded to other regions of the country, mainly because of the mandatory monitoring required for potentially polluting private companies.

Eventually, after decades of monitoring and decontamination plans, in 2011, air quality research suggested that Santiago was still among the top 5 capitals in Latin America with the highest annual mean PM2.5. Now in 2021, Chile's top 5 cities with the highest air particulate matter concentration were Angol, Padre las Casas, Cóyhaique, Coronel and Temuco with Santiago listed as number 8.

What Causes Poor Air Quality in Chile?

When it comes to the air quality in Chile, there are a few reasons for the excessive air pollution:

  • Woodburning: According to the Ministry of Environment, woodburning stoves produce as much as 94% of particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions in some Chilean cities. While the solution should be simple, unfortunately, many households don't have the financial means to change their heaters to cleaner energy sources.
  • Vehicule emissions: When it comes to transportation, the main sources of emissions come from cars, buses and trucks. This accounts for 41.2% of the greenhouse gas emissions in Chile.
  • Local geography: In the winter, the air quality becomes even worse since there is little rain or no wind to wash away the smog in cities like Santiago. As a result, the particulate matter gets trapped in the valley by weather phenomena like temperature inversions.
  • Wildfires: This year especially, Chile is seeing record high temperatures as caused by the Chile wildfire season. Across the country, hundreds of homes have burned to the ground and many locals are displaced until they can rebuild.

How Chile is Fighting Air Pollution

Home energy use is one of the biggest issues when it comes to air quality in Chile. Since 2012, the country has aimed to reduce firewood as a primary heating source as part of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

In 2014, the Government also launched a program to replace 200,000 firewood heaters with more energy-efficient heaters. This was done to create less pollution by using new gas, paraffin or wood pellet-based heaters.

The Chilean Ministry of Environment estimates that toxic emissions produced by traditional firewood heaters are three times those of a paraffin-based heater and almost double those of a pellet-based heater. By changing to new heat sources, the country is successfully reducing emissions and improving indoor air quality.

In addition to this, the Government also provides subsidies for the insulation of 100,000 new heaters annually in low and middle-income households as part of a program that attempts to improve housing conditions and air quality.

Another strategy being used by Chile’s government that has also reduced pollution is through taxation. In 2014, they added a vehicle emissions tax which caused a 30% drop in emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide between 2015 and 2016. They also offered tax relief for the import of vehicles that comply with 'Euro 6' standards.

On top of all this, Chile has demonstrated a solid commitment to the Breathe Life Campaign. Its goal is to achieve the World Health Organization's air quality targets by 2030 by mobilizing cities and individuals to make changes that improve air quality.

Since 2014, the city of Santiago has even led the way with its Santiago Respira campaign, which aims to decrease global particulate matter emissions by 60%. 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 programs, have decreased national emergency room visits by 500,000—a 17% drop. A few years later, Chiguayante, Concepción, Hualqui and Talca joined Santiago and are also part of the Breathe Life campaign.

And finally, in 2018, Santiago became the first city in Latin America to adopt Euro VI emissions standards for its public transportation system. By 2020, Santiago had over 400 electric buses, aiming to be fully electric by 2035. As a result of this change, Santiago's particulate matter emissions have fallen by 27.6%, taking a giant step toward improving the air quality in Chile.

Worried About Your Air Quality?

Monitor the particulate Matter levels around the world with our free, real-time PurpleAir Map or join PurpleAir's mission to make air quality data accessible to everyone by investing in an air quality monitor for your home.

Together, we can be informed and make changes in our daily habits and the community to improve air quality.