Increased Vehicle Restrictions are the Latest Move in Mexico City’s 25 Year Fight Against Air Pollution

By Manuel Olivera, C40 Regional Director for Latin America

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The Federal Metropolitan Commission of the Megalopolis in Mexico City recently ordered more than 2 million cars to remain at home each day to help tackle the air pollution crisis in the city.

High levels of air pollution affecting Mexico City since mid March 2016 have led the authorities to declare the first pollution emergency in more than a decade. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that levels of ozone in the air should not exceed 100 micrograms per cubic metre. These limits had been breached several times in recent weeks, however. Once levels of ozone in the city were measured at 160 micrograms per cubic metre, the Environmental Commission issued an emergency order.

In 1992, the United Nations reported that Mexico City was the most polluted city on the planet. Thanks to a series of comprehensive programmes – named ProAire – over the last two decades the city has recorded impressive reductions in local air pollution as well as CO2 emissions. These included policies to restrict access to the city for certain high polluting private vehicles. The new restrictions introduced this week on the use of private cars during weekdays and Saturdays will keep as many as 2 million cars at home, nearly 40% of the private fleet running daily on the streets, as well as up to 20% of the motorcycles.

Other measures adopted by the city in recent years include testing vehicles for compliance with emissions regulations; compulsory fitting of catalytic converters in new cars; sulphur reduction in diesel fuel; an increase in buses powered by natural gas; construction of dedicated bike lanes and the retirement of 1,500 of the most polluting small and medium size buses. Mexico City’s Metrobus system launched in 2005 was the longest such system in Latin America that year. The city’s Ecobici bike-sharing programme is the largest in the region. The city’s efforts were recognised with the 2013 C40 Award for Air Quality, which noted the diversity of actions but also the impressive achievement of reducing ambient air concentrations of primary pollutants, including 97% of lead emissions, 89% of SO2, 79% of CO2 and 66% of PM10, over a 25-year period.

With these actions, and the latest increased restrictions on cars entering the city, the Federal Government and Mayor Mancera with his team are trying to prevent as many as 5,000 premature deaths per year. According to the “air calculator” published by the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness air pollution results in more than 822,000 extra patients attending hospitals in Mexico City, at a cost of $41 million in health costs and a further $193 million in lost productivity.

Critics of the air pollution measures in Mexico City have suggested that the system, which relies on number plate recognition to determine the cars that must stay at home, creates the incentive for commuters to own more than one car. Others complain that the geography of the metropolis, located in a valley surrounded by mountains that trap air over the city, means pollution is inevitable and therefore action on private vehicles is a waste of time and effort.

Whilst some in society will always demand their right to pollute, freely emit greenhouse gasses and create traffic jams, it is the duty of the city government to save lives and protect the health of the urban population, particularly those most vulnerable such as children and older people.

Air pollution is just one of the most visible effects of climate change affecting Mexico City. The current restrictions on cars entering the city is estimated to save nearly 6,500 tonnes of CO2 emissions per day, making it an important feature of the city’s climate change efforts. As a leading member of the C40 network they continue to invest in low emissions public transport including electric powered buses, trains and taxis, massive bikes use and car sharing in order to accelerate the transformation of the cities transport system to deliver on it’s ambitious climate action targets.