Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Model for Megacities? Mexico City Cleans Up Its Air

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Model for Megacities? Mexico City Cleans Up Its Air

Article excerpt

Mexico City was once known for its smoggy landscape with industrial eyesores such as the 18 de Marzo Refinery spewing ozone- forming emissions such as sulfur dioxide. The cloud of contaminants hanging over the capital played into an apocalyptic reputation for pollution, crime, and overpopulation; and it fueled urban myths, like the one about birds dropping dead mid-flight because of the poor air quality.

But the refinery - named for the day Mexico expropriated its oil industry - was ordered closed in 1991, and converted into a park commemorating the country's 2010 bicentennial. It is but one example of industry exiting Mexico City and the steps taken to improve air quality over the past two decades in this megalopolis of more than 20 million people.

With urbanization advancing, economies expanding, and climate change a concern, Mexico City has emerged as an unlikely environmental example for cities in developing countries suffering similar air quality issues.

Mexico City recorded only eight days with air quality considered "good" in 1992. That compares with 248 "good" air days in 2012, reflecting the success of initiatives to relocate industry, kick clunkers off the capital's streets, encourage cleaner technologies, and expand public transit and cycling options.

"Mexico City is still perceived as one of the most contaminated [cities] in the world, but nowadays there are cities ... that have worse contamination," says Roberto Munoz, a biologist teaching at the Ibero-American University.

Closing the refinery was among the first actions in cleaning up the capital as industries either invested in new technologies, ceased operations, or moved to other states.

The state oil company Pemex started selling lower-sulfur and unleaded gasoline, while a program known as "Hoy no Circula," or "No driving today," forced motorists off the road one day a week. Vehicles also had to undergo emissions tests.

Slowly but surely air quality improved here in spite of obstacles such as unfavorable geography, which keeps contamination in the Valle de Mexico - the high-altitude valley containing Mexico City and the surrounding state of Mexico.

Left-wing administrations led by Mayors Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Marcelo Ebrard between 2000 and 2012 in the Federal District - home to about 9 million residents; another 11 million live in municipalities in the state of Mexico - took policies that targeted pollution even further. …

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