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OPINION | Mexico's Fight Against Air Pollution Could Hold Lessons for India

Meanwhile, Mexico City continues to fight its challenges, but has managed to overcome critical emergencies and stay out of the 400 most polluted cities, according to the same WHO database. We are not one of the top 10 cleanest cities in the world yet, but we continue reinventing our urban organization so we can preserve our “most transparent region of the air”. Can the Indian metros do it too?

Melba Pria |

Updated:May 4, 2018, 12:38 PM IST
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OPINION | Mexico's Fight Against Air Pollution Could Hold Lessons for India
Mexican ambassador Melba Pria talks to CNN-News18 about current US crisis. (Image: Network 18)
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The World Health Organization published the latest update to its Ambient Air Quality Database, the most comprehensive resource on air pollution in human settlements, leading us to the grim realisation that virtually no soul is safe from this invisible killer. The results confirm that up to 90% of the global population breathe air containing high levels of pollutants.

The problem is especially acute in South and Southeast Asia where 2 million people are estimated to die from air pollution-related maladies every year, in contrast with the 300,000 people that die from the same in the Americas.

The WHO insists that this database is not made to rank cities or assign blame, but to reflect the efforts undertaken by over 108 countries.

Nevertheless, it has been hard for media outlets and other observers to overlook that Indian cities exclusively occupy the top 14 most polluted ranks.

The release by the WHO also contains a glimmer of hope by highlighting some of the most important efforts driven by different countries to combat air pollution. Alongside India, the organisation praises Mexico, particularly regarding its vehicle standards and commitment to get rid of soot-free buses and diesel.

Diesel is an interesting example. While in India the share of diesel in car sales is around 23% — already a huge improvement from 47% in 2012-2013, in Mexico City only 5% of the vehicles operate with diesel. Along with the cities of Madrid, Athens, and Paris, Mexico City has pledged to ban all private diesel cars by 2025.

When the celebrated explorer Alexander von Humboldt entered the valley of Mexico he was famously quoted as exclaiming “Traveller: you have arrived at the most transparent region of the air”, impressed by the splendid view of mountains and volcanoes, and the crisp breeze of a spot located 2,500 meters over sea level. Those same imposing mountains have created significant challenges for modern Mexico City, blocking the air circulation that helps dissipate the emissions of over 20 million inhabitants.

After being infamously known as the most polluted city in the world in 1992, Mexico City managed to produce 8 different comprehensive plans on air pollution and achieve a reduction of over 7.7 tons of harmful pollutants in 4 years.

Recently, the city has gone through a rebranding process and continues to reimagine itself to identify with sustainability. It might not make much sense in English, but Mexico City was historically known as “Distrito Federal” or “federal district” to reaffirm its capital city status. In January 2016, the warmly nicknamed “DF” officially changed its name to “Ciudad de Mexico”, stylized as CDMX, and reflecting a wave of changes.

These changes were not only physical – all taxis became hot pink, for example – but conceptual: CDMX is a city whose new constitution specifically stresses the right of citizens to have a city free of pollution.

There has also been a move to benefit from exchanges of best practices on sustainability. The Bus Rapid Transit System “Metrobus”, inaugurated in 2005, has revolutionized public transportation in the city with its 7 different lines and was recognised with Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) 2013 Sustainable Transport Award. Like most major cities in the world, CDMX has a bicycle sharing system. It transports 400,000 users per month and is in constant expansion.

Notably, CDMX has strived to become a leader among world cities in the topic of air pollution and emission control, hosting the flagship event of the Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) in 2016. In February 2018, Mexico City also organised the event “Women4Climate” in which mayors of the world’s great cities highlighted the crucial role of women in creating a greener urban future.

A month after that, C40 awarded Mexico City the first place in the category of Best Performance in the Latin American region for its programs to combat climate change during 2017.

There is plenty that world cities can do to tackle emissions and become more sustainable. There are other vibrant cities in developing countries that can contribute to the Indian experience, with its unique necessities and enormous populations.

Delhi is already on a more mindful path, with ambitious new programmes announced by different levels of government. A key lesson that we learned in Mexico when we embarked on this journey 30 years ago was the importance of coordinating efforts between governments and avoiding duplication.

One difference is that we had the “luxury” of being able to focus on improving the air quality of our capital. India cannot afford to ignore the problem outside of Delhi. The WHO database might not be meant as a competition, but it can certainly work to prove with hard data how urgently we need to focus on the air quality outside of the capital, which gets most of the already fragile national attention.

Meanwhile, Mexico City continues to fight its challenges, but has managed to overcome critical emergencies and stay out of the 400 most polluted cities, according to the same WHO database. We are not one of the top 10 cleanest cities in the world yet, but we continue reinventing our urban organization so we can preserve our “most transparent region of the air”. Can the Indian metros do it too?

(The writer is the ambassador of Mexico to India. Views are personal.)


| Edited by: Puja Menon
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