Mexico City and the Pandemic An Urgent Transformation

Overview of foggy Mexico City
An overview over the significant air pollution in Mexico City as the Corona virus spread in April 2019. | Photo (detail): Carlos Jasso © picture alliance/Reuter

The global pandemic is forcing heavily polluted Mexico City to face the fact that, if we are to breathe cleaner air again, we must bring about a serious change in the way we live and get around town, explains Eugenio Fernández Vázquez.

By Eugenio Fernández Vázquez

The coronavirus has caused a number of environmental problems. Among other things, the air quality in Mexico City was so bad in mid-November 2020 – despite the fact that the economy in Mexico's sprawling capital is currently just ticking over, mobility hugely reduced and consumption down to rock-bottom levels – that emergency measures had to be taken. This state of affairs goes to show that sporadic efforts to curb air pollution are no longer adequate, not even during a general standstill due to lockdown. To live healthier and more sustainable lives, we need to make a fundamental change in the way we produce, consume and get around. This is bound to be an uphill battle, but the opportunities for the environment, society and the economy are tremendous.

In late 2020, a smog alert was declared in Mexico City when the ozone concentration in the atmosphere exceeded “acceptable” levels. When the air we breathe contains too much ozone, we all suffer: it’s particularly hard on asthmatics, but it can cause respiratory illnesses and even permanent lung damage in everyone else, too.

Causes of Smog Alarm

The increase in the ambient ozone concentration is caused by the city as a whole and yet by no one in particular. Ozone is a gas that is not emitted directly by human activity. It is produced when volatile organic compounds chemically react with various air pollutants emitted by industry and fossil-fuel-burning vehicles in the presence of plentiful sunlight. The recent peaks in pollution were caused by everything from the use of solvents in industrial processes and the use of toiletries that release these organic compounds to leaks in liquid gas plants the exhaust from the thousands of cars that returned to the city’s streets when social distancing rules were relaxed.

The fact that a smog alert was declared at a time when traffic levels in the city were 30 to 40 per cent below normal and the national economy was experiencing a nearly ten per cent decline in activity goes to show the limitations of the incremental solutions introduced around the turn of the millennium. Back in the 1990s, when the urgent need to curb air pollution became all too clear, restrictions were imposed on some sources of emissions and technological changes were made to others. Exhaust from motor vehicles was a principal cause of air pollution, for example, so policymakers introduced a vehicle inspection and maintenance programme and took measures to improve fuel quality, which made for radical improvements to air quality. Other steps in the same direction have helped us get to where we are today: worlds away, incredible as it may seem, from the disaster that was so imminent just a quarter of a century ago, but back in trouble again.

A Technical Fix Won’t Do the Trick Anymore

The Mexican capital is up against a phenomenon that comes from everywhere and yet from no particular place. How can we stop air pollution caused by the use of hairspray as well as industrial solvents? Technical solutions aren’t enough anymore. Naturally, we’ve got to do something about liquefied petroleum gas leaks, which cost millions of pesos every year. But even if all those leaks were fixed (which is practically impossible), that would reduce the pollution by only 20 per cent – as would, say, reconverting all motor vehicles to stop emissions of volatile organic compounds. Taken together, these two measures would reduce emissions only by a little over one-third. So what else can be done?

We can change the ways we produce, consume and get around town, in addition to efforts that Mexico City has already undertaken, such as banning single-use plastics. The city has declared all-out war on plastics, starting with a ban on plastic bags at supermarkets and extending, from 2021 on, to a broad ban on single-use cutlery, balloons, tampon applicators and various other ubiquitous items. Even if the pandemic made some precautions look quite inconsistent – not a plastic bag in sight anymore in the streets of the city, for example, and yet all the produce at the supermarkets wrapped in plastic film – the battle of 2020 was won because it definitively laid the foundations for the elimination of plastics from everyday life – and, eventually, for the eradication of air pollution.

Chipping Away at the Disposable Society 

The ban on single-use plastics has set some very positive parallel processes in motion. Plastics are being replaced by much less harmful alternatives (e.g. compostable materials) and throwaway articles in general by made-to-last products: people are using tote bags instead of free plastic shopping bags, and reusable instead of one-way bottles. These processes are chipping away at the disposable society and opening the market up for new, smaller companies whose high-quality products would hardly have sold at all in the past.

We ought to make the same efforts to tackle air pollution. Mexico City must do whatever it takes to clean up the air, including policies to really change our production and consumption patterns. Where industry now spends more on chemicals while cutting back on wages (e.g. in industrial cleaning processes), the equation needs to be reversed: they should bank on workers instead of solvents. Where motorists have benefited from added levels and underpasses on the city’s beltway, we should be banking on public – and ideally electric – transport. Where flower boxes have given way to asphalt and concrete, we need to bring the green back into our urban environment and bring shady trees back onto our bare pavements.

If these policies are combined with others, like the war on plastics as well as efforts to save water and preserve and restore the city’s expansive parks and gardens, Mexico City’s relationship to its environment can be profoundly changed, making nature an ally in our pursuit of a much longed-for social and economic transformation, rather than a threat to public health.