Working with nature, Colombia fights air pollution

This year, Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, will begin deploying the first of 1,485 electric buses to replace the diesel vehicles that now dominate its public transit system. The move is expected to prevent the release of 16,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, or its equivalents, every year.

The switch to electric buses is part of a larger push by Colombia to reduce air pollution, which is linked to thousands of deaths annually and takes a heavy toll on the environment.

But the lack of a robust air quality monitoring system is hampering more aggressive, evidence-based efforts to tackle air pollution.

To address that problem, the country launched the Biodivercities Alliance for a Better Air, in July this year. The programme will help 11 urban settlements identify sources of air pollution. It will also foster the development of nature-based solutions for improving air quality, with the aim of protecting human and ecosystem health.

“Decisions must be made based on data,” said Carlos Correa Escaf, Colombia’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development. “With the Biodivercities initiative, we are highlighting the importance of improving availability of information on air quality and emissions to strengthen actions for preventing and reducing air pollution.”

Pollution takes a heavy toll

Some 8 per cent of deaths in Colombia are connected to water and air pollution, and the environmental costs linked to atmospheric pollution nearly doubled between 2009 and 2015, according to the national Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies.

The $2.5 million dollar Biodivercities project, which is a play on the words ‘biodiversity’ and ‘cities’, is funded by a national carbon tax that came into force in 2017.

One of the urban enclaves that joined this alliance is Montería, which lies on the banks of the Sinú River and is known for its forests brimming with monkeys and sloths.

As part of the Biodivercities alliance, the city of 500,000 will deploy two new air quality monitoring units to its current system, which is struggling to gather the data required to inform more effective policies. One of these will allow officials for the first time to monitor emissions produced by vehicles. In Montería, an estimated 28 per cent of emissions come from the transport sector.                     

“These new additions will strengthen the existing air quality monitoring network in our city. That will allow us to take corrective, preventive, and mitigation measures,” said Mayor Carlos Ordosgoitia.

The city has already built 42 kilometers of bike lanes and has a public bike rental network with 11,000 users. It is also building the first public river transportation system in Colombia, which will connect the city north to south, link to the public bus system and be powered partly by solar energy.

Also part of the clean air alliance are Barranquilla, on the Caribbean coast, Leticia, deep in the Amazon Forest, Armenia, one of the biggest cities in Colombia’s coffee belt, and Barrancabermeja, Manizales, Villavicencio, Yopal, Quibdó, Pasto and the Caribbean Island of San Andrés. Nearly 12 per cent of Colombia’s population live in these cities.

Greener cities, cleaner cities

These cities are closely linked to nature geographically, economically and culturally. They are aiming to sustainably capitalize on the forests, mangroves, or wetlands that surround them while reducing their environmental footprint.

“Urban biodiversity cannot be taken apart from urban development,” said Correa Escaf. “With the expansion of air monitoring networks, we will also identify areas to intervene with nature-based solutions, incorporating biodiversity in the urban landscape.”

In Montería, the municipality is preparing a 375-hectare restoration project that will include planting 416,000 indigenous trees.

The environment ministry expects that the Biodivercities alliance will contribute to the national goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 51 per cent by 2030 and reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.

Tracking regional progress

A new assessment by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), launched on the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, shows that at least 17 of 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have implemented air quality monitoring networks. But additional investment and regulations are required to produce more accurate data that will help improving air quality.

The report calls for more action in the transport sector and in the waste management industry, wherein the open burning of rubbish is common. Just over 50 per cent of regional countries don’t have vehicle emissions standards and 40 per cent don’t regulate or control open burning of waste.

“The links between a healthy air and a healthy planet are now clearer than ever,” said Piedad Martin, UNEP Deputy Regional Director in Latin America and the Caribbean. “In Latin America and the Caribbean, with over 100 million people living in areas susceptible to air pollution, countries need to keep up with innovative efforts to take care of human health while preserving and restoring the rich ecosystems they harbour.”

UNEP works with the Panamerican Health Organization to combat air pollution. It also hosts the Intergovernmental Network on Atmospheric Pollution, which promotes regional cooperation and helps build the capacity of governments. The network emerged from the Forum of Ministers of Environment of the region and is currently crafting an action plan scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.

UN Environment