Task force to improve air quality of world’s biggest city

An international team headed by a scientist who received the Nobel prize for research on the effect of CFCs on the depletion of the ozone layer has begun to battle air pollution in the Mexican capital, one of the world’s smoggiest.

Dr. Mario Molina, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), helped by scientists from Harvard University and Mexican officials, has presented his plans for fighting the city’s chronic air pollution problems to the secretaries of the environment and ecology of Distrito Federal (DF), the capital’s state, with over 20 million inhabitants. Molina presented his six-month plan with 71 recommendations as the first part of Proaire, a new governmental 10-year air quality programme.

Mexico City suffers heavily from particulate pollution, as it is situated in a basin surrounded by high mountains, as well as a heavy reliance on cars and buses, many of which are poorly maintained, and a large number of polluting industries combined with a predominantly dry and sunny climate.

Key parts of the plan are to reduce the amount of sulphur in gasoline, to control diesel emissions and to improve the monitoring of vehicle emissions to be able to track particles of less than 2.5 microns in diameter. Though tracking such small particles is not currently possible, Molina has found that they contribute significantly to pollution-related disease. The measures will mean a dramatic overhaul of the city’s transport system. Claudia Sheinbaum, DF’s environment secretary has announced three measures in Molina’s plan which will soon come into practice: a new less polluting bus fleet, the compulsory production of fuel with a low sulphur content to use in the new vehicles by the governmental petrol company, Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), which is predicted to cost some $2 billion, and a reorganisation of bus routes will improve access to the underused subway system.

A count of every vehicle in the state is also underway to determine the amount of pollution emitted by each one. Broadening the community of people familiar with air pollution issues in Latin America through education and training of decision makers, industry groups, students and researchers is also a central goal of the project. The study of Mexico City is also applicable to polluted megacities in other countries, such as Sao Paulo, Bangkok, and Beijing, Molina says.

Molina stresses that his policies offer new perspectives, where some countries propose adopting US policies without considering whether they have been effective or whether they would be appropriate for their local situations. Most countries struggle with insufficient data and models to characterise the problem, and there are too few trained professionals to use the data even if they had them.

No budget has yet been set for Proaire 2001-2010, but Sheinbaum said that the Mexican government intends to seek out national and international funding.

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