The Mexico City metropolitan area, home to more than 21 million people, experiences air pollution that can have negative long-term impacts for its residents. Indeed, some recent grim headlines bemoaning increased smog and ozone during the dry season, as well as premature deaths due to air pollution, are quite discouraging. However, CDMX, as the city is colloquially known, has a “comeback kid” success story to tell. In 1992, the U.N. and WHO declared the megalopolis the world’s most polluted city. Following this sobering declaration, the city government made sweeping changes to bring the city’s air quality under control. Here are five innovations that are continuing to help air quality in Mexico City move in the right direction.
5 Green Innovations Improving Air Quality in Mexico City
- Low-emission public transit: The city has expanded public transit options to include low- and zero-emissions options like the Metrobús and Ecobici bicycles. Early changes that revolutionized air quality in CDMX were part of a multiphase government program called ProAire. The program included closing fuel refineries, adding catalytic converters to cars and enacting weekly “Hoy No Circula” (“No-Drive Days”) for city cars. Later, in 2005, the low-emission Metrobús system made its debut as part of the third phase of the same program. Among many benefits, Metrobús is cheaper to run than the subway and far cleaner than regular buses. In recent years, the city has also worked to become less car-centric by designating bike lanes on roads. In 2010, Ecobici stations with public-use bicycles started popping up around the city. Anyone with an Ecobici card can now use a bicycle in 45-minute increments, picking it up at one station and dropping it off at another. Hybrid and electric taxis have also been introduced to improve air quality in Mexico City.
- Air quality forecasting: In 2017, Mexico City unveiled a new tool to forecast high levels of air pollution. The city’s location in a valley surrounded by mountains puts it at a disadvantage for ridding the air of dangerous pollutants. These come in the form of nanoparticles, which are released into the air mainly through vehicle emissions and industrial activity. Nanoparticles can become lodged in people’s lungs and hearts, where they can have long-term consequences. In a country that, in comparison to developed nations, has very limited availability of hospital beds and doctors, the need for prevention is urgent. The forecasting system for air quality in Mexico City can accurately predict high rates of pollution a full day in advance, allowing schools to cancel classes if necessary and giving people time to safely plan their activities and transport.
- Eco-friendly art: Young artists are using air-purifying paint to create murals for awareness about air quality in Mexico City. In 2019, the Absolut Street Trees project, run by Mexico City’s Anonimo Agency in partnership with French company Pernod Ricard, painted three murals on different buildings around the city center. The colorful murals portray positive environmental messages using Airlite paint, whose active ingredient, titanium dioxide, reacts to the presence of light. Undergoing a process comparable to photosynthesis, the paint can scrub the air of nearly 90% of harmful toxins and pollutants from cars. In a city where buildings abound, space is limited and private vehicle transport is a necessary evil for many, Airlite offers possibilities for redemption. In 2019, the U.N. hailed the innovation as one of the four most useful new technologies for solving air pollution problems in cities across the world.
- Solar panel integration: Ciudad Solar (Solar City) is an ambitious solar panel program that aims to harness 350 megawatts of solar energy by 2024. In 2019, the city government, led by mayor Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, launched the nearly 8 billion peso ($414 million) plan using funding from the city budget, the Mexican federal bank Nacional Financiera (NAFIN), the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. By installing renewable energy units like solar panels and solar heaters across the city in private and public buildings over five years, the city aims to slash carbon emissions by 2 million tons to improve air quality in Mexico City.
- Clean outdoor spaces: The city is expanding green acreage, using recycled materials to open a massive new park in an outlying zone. The centrally located Bosque de Chapultepec is a well-known gathering place for many residents, as it is the largest and oldest urban park in all of Latin America. However, green spaces are needed in other neighborhoods as well if air quality in Mexico City is to sustainably improve. In 2017, a large park called Parque La Mexicana opened in the Lomas de Santa Fe neighborhood on the city’s western edge. More recently, Parque Ecológico Cuitláhuac in Iztapalapa has been the biggest revitalization project to take place in the city. The 250 million peso ($11.4 million), 358-acre park, once a trash dump, has been cleaned, greened and transformed by a brigade of more than 200 scientists, engineers and other specialists. It has been built in large part using recycled materials and is opening three distinct sections in three phases. One debuted in 2020, and the last two are set to open in 2021 and 2022. Some have already dubbed it “the new Chapultepec.”
While geographical and ecological challenges occasionally cloud efforts to achieve better air quality in Mexico City, public and private organizations, including the government, have shown openness to innovative solutions. This is not for nothing: the changes have earned attention as models for other pollution-challenged countries like India. However, more consistency and dedication to green innovation is needed to make this vibrant and iconic “city of palaces” a palace not just for tourists, but for those who call it home.
– Andrea Kruger