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As host of Cancún climate talks, Mexico shows off its greener capital city

Mexico, host of the Cancún climate talks that began Monday, enforced tougher environmental standards in its notoriously dirty capital and vastly improved air quality.

By Staff writer / December 1, 2010

People take pictures of one another at sunset in front of the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City. The city has made great strides in combating air pollution, experts say, but much remains to be done: Ozone and particulate levels are high, and the city continues to sprawl.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP

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Mexico City

Twenty years ago, news coverage of Mexico's pollution problem rang apocalyptic.

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"Mexico City smog reaching record levels; disaster feared," read a 1992 headline in the Los Angeles Times. "Mexico turning into a gas chamber," the Calgary (Alberta) Herald exclaimed.

Mexico's capital was considered the world's most polluted city in the early '90s. Scientists measured alarming levels of lead, ozone, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide in the air. Respiratory illnesses abounded. Runners donned surgical masks.

But the apocalypse never arrived. Among a host of initiatives, the government reduced road time for older cars, cut gasoline lead levels, and established emissions standards and verification procedures.

"Air quality has improved dramatically over the last decade," says Richard Fuller, president of the Blacksmith Institute in New York, which studies toxic hot spots around the globe. "It used to be one of the worst. Now it is a model."

As Mexico hosts the United Nations climate conference in Cancún through Dec. 10, with leaders from around the globe gathering to talk about a binding treaty to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, the notoriously dirty capital is touting itself as a green city.

An ambitious 15-year "Plan Verde" promises to reduce vehicle emissions by 7 million metric tons before 2012 by investing in alternative energy, more green zones, and public transport such as electric buses. A bicycle program aims to sign up 24,000 users by February, from 17,000 today, says Martha Delgado, the city's environmental secretary.

"This is very exciting for a city that used to be one of the most polluted in the world," she says.

Mexico City has also signed a voluntary pact – together with 137 other cities present here Nov. 21 at the World Mayors Summit on Climate – to establish a monitoring and verification mechanism to track emissions. The pact is to be introduced at the climate conference in Cancún.

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