Pollution alert lifted in Mexico City

After four days of high ozone levels, Mexico City has finally ended its first air pollution alert since 2005, though underlying challenges remain. 

Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo
Haze hangs over Mexico City on Wednesday. Authorities banned more than 1 million cars from the roads and offered free subway and bus rides to coax people from their vehicles as Mexico City's first air pollution alert in 11 years stretched into a third day on Wednesday

An air-pollution emergency alert that has been in effect in Mexico City for days was lifted on Thursday, according to city officials.

The multi-day pollution alert which began on Monday is the first the city has faced in more than a decade. To tackle the emergency, city officials imposed temporary measures to combat the sources of air pollution.

Ozone levels hit 203 points on Monday, when the emergency alert started. One-hundred-eighty points is the threshold for emergency alert measures that take children off playgrounds and cars off the roads.

On Thursday, Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera told radio listeners that, “We’re paying the price,” for high emissions levels and polluting activities.

Although the emergency alert was lifted on Thursday, smog had reached 1.3 times the acceptable level of air pollution by the afternoon.

The emergency alert prompted Mexico City officials like Mancera and federal environmental secretary Rafael Pacchiano to reevaluate Mexico’s existing environmental measures.

Mexico City is the largest city in Mexico, a sprawling metropolis of over 20 million people (including suburbs). There are an estimated 10 million cars in city, though only a small portion of those cars are registered.

Due to low registration rates, there is correspondingly low compliance with Mexico City’s emissions regulations. It is easy to buy off emissions testing facilities, which can be bribed for as little as $29 dollars, according to consumer watch group El Poder del Consumidor.

Some say that Mexico’s unwillingness to follow through on air quality policies has contributed to the city’s current problems.

“Policies for air quality have been practically abandoned for the past 20 years, and now we’re paying the bill,” says 2012 presidential candidate Gabriel Quadri.

In 1998, Mexico instituted vehicle standards that would keep vehicles over a certain age off the road, though the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the age policy could not stand because it was discriminatory.

The Wall Street Journal spoke with an environmental nonprofit called the Mario Molina Center, which says that about half of the cars that supposedly passed emissions tests last year actually do not conform to emissions standards.

Some of the city’s ills are also due to a dispute over garbage disposal between Mexico City and Mexico State.  

Mexico City generates about 8,000 tons of garbage every day. Mexico State suddenly refused to accept the city’s garbage when Mayor Mancera blamed other Mexican states for creating pollution that affected the city.

The garbage dispute was resolved by Thursday.

What can cities like Mexico City do to counter environmental emergencies such as high smog levels?

"Emergency situations are sometimes susceptible to short term and temporary responses,” said John D. Walke of the National Air Resources Defense Council in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “You might have alternative no drive days, such as Beijing and Delhi, but you need to be able to forecast one or two days in advance.

Driving bans are a common tactic in China and India, where Walke says cars are kept off the road based on the number on their license plate. Mexico City took similar steps on Wednesday and Thursday, keeping up to 800,000 cars off the road each day.

According to Pacchiano, the city is also working hard to better identify pollution sources and enable emergency alerts to be declared at lower levels of pollution.

Despite the creation of an air quality standard by the World Health Organization, not all countries adhere to air quality guidelines. In large part, Walke told the Monitor, it is due to political opposition from energy producers and other business interests.

“The dynamic around the world concerning long term solutions is largely the same,” says Walke. “The sources responsible for the pollution, energy producers and manufacturers and the like, must spend money in order to curtail air pollution. Those expenses are money that does not go to their shareholders.”

Sometimes, citizens oppose air-quality-control measures. In Mexico City, for example, a large number of high emissions vehicles are still on the road, due to a corrupt emissions testing system and a non-compliant populace. In London, citizens protested the potential closure of several streets to vehicle traffic.

Air pollution is making headlines in cities across the world today. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg went for a run in smoggy Beijing Friday, where Walke says the air pollution makes walking “like being inside a forest fire” in terms of air quality. In England, environmental activist groups challenged the government for being slow to act on pollution legislation.

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