Mexico’s journey to better air quality began in the early 1990s and has become the stuff of legend, particularly with respect to tackling air pollution in the capital.
In 1992, the air in Mexico City— declared by the UN to be the worst on the planet— was so polluted that birds were falling out of the sky, children drew the sky with brown crayons and ozone exceeded safe levels on 97 per cent of days in the year.
That experience drove the government of Mexico and that of Mexico City to act on several fronts to reduce air pollution— shutting down or moving polluting factories away from built-up urban centres, launching its much-lauded ProAire programme, now in its fourth iteration, banning cars once a week, among other initiatives that have since been adopted in cities elsewhere in the world.
Today, Mexico and its capital city have come a long way. Mexico City is no longer the most polluted in the world, recently recording a 7.7-million tonne reduction in carbon emissions in the space of just four years (2008 to 2012), beating its 7-million tonne target.
And, in the 25 years to 2015, the city’s air quality improvements added 3.2 to 3.4 years to the average life expectancy of its citizens and saved 22,500 to 28,000 lives.
It’s a much-needed story of hope and tangible success that Mexico likes to recount as a voice of encouragement to other governments who are now facing the same challenges head-on: if we could do it, so can you.
Nonetheless, the country of nearly 120 million inhabitants accepts that the challenge is an ongoing one, and brings with it firm overarching commitments to the BreatheLife campaign. These are to:
• Reduce air pollution — including short-lived climate pollutants — in key sectors such as electric power generation, transport of people and goods, industry and commercial and domestic activities;
• Technically support local governments to disseminate air quality information and implement programs to improve air quality; and
• Achieve the air quality standards of the World Organization of the Health by 2030.
At country level, Mexico’s government has drafted a Vision for the Protection of the Atmosphere, intended as a guide to establishing action for better air quality. Actions include improving information on air quality and pollutant emissions and their impacts on and costs to health and the environment and articulating action on climate change mitigation and protection of the ozone layer.
It also dedicated resources to update the Atmospheric Environmental Contingency Programmes in place in the Valley of Mexico, which include preventive phases, contingency measures for fine particle pollution (PM2.5) and combined air quality contingencies (ozone and particulate pollution).
Federal institutions, including the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) and Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), established commitments to reduce emissions in the Valley of Mexico.
The federal government sets the overall rules and requirements for vehicle and fuel standards and govern emission caps and limits for all pollutants.
A National Air Quality Strategy (ENCA) coordinates action to 2030 among different government agencies to control, mitigate and prevent the emission and concentration of pollutants in the atmosphere in rural and urban environments.
It was created through a process led by the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), which called on different sectors of society to participate in a feedback process, with experts from governmental, industrial, academic and social sectors relevant to air pollution prevention in Mexico.
The process yielded five strategic axes, 21 strategies and 69 lines of action that promote the convergence of the responsibilities of different sectors and institutions in order to best implement prevention, control and mitigation measures.
All levels of government on board, and health at the centre of the action
Three levels of government— federal, state and municipal— share responsibility for emissions regulations and compliance with air quality standards, depending on the polluting source.
They also share air quality monitoring responsibilities, with states supported in this endeavour by the national government, which in turn collates and presents the information through the National Air Quality Information System (SINAICA), while publishing the annual Air Quality Report in Mexican cities that evaluates compliance with air quality standards.
The SEMARNAT also promotes the development of Air Quality Management Programs in the states.
But, at the centre of action for air quality in Mexico is health.
Air quality standards are prepared by the Federal Commission for the Protection against Sanitary Risks (COFEPRIS), under the Ministry of Health of the Government of Mexico.
“The Ministry of Health is the body responsible for evaluating the evidence of the impacts of air pollution on health and establishing the permissible limits of concentration of pollutants in the atmosphere”, according to its website.
“Diseases and premature deaths associated with air pollution will receive priority attention”, it states.
It states that “the public health sector can play a leading role in promoting a multisectoral approach to the prevention of exposure to air pollution, for which it must involve and support the work of other sectors (for example, transport, housing, energy, industry) to develop and implement long-term policies and programs aimed at reducing air pollution and improving health”.
The government believes its National Air Quality Strategy will help to prevent health problems caused by air pollution, in both urban and rural areas, and intends for it to improve the quality of life of those usually heavily exposed to air pollution, particularly the most vulnerable: infants, the elderly and the chronically ill.
With air pollution now a near-universal experience, with costly health, environmental and economic impacts, the past and current experiences and bold experiments of countries like Mexico and its regions and cities are more needed than ever— giving others inspiration, jumping-off points and real-life examples of measurable, viable solutions to tackle air pollution.