A vision through the smog

Clean air

Mexico City just experienced its first air pollution alert in more than a decade, and President Enrique Peña Nieto has asked SEMARNAT to do something. There are plenty of things to be done.

A Supreme Court decision in 2015 weakened of the city’s vehicle inspection and driving restrictions, ultimately allowing 300,000 to 600,000 more vehicles on the road each day. Unsurprisingly, Mexico City’s air quality has suffered, and Mexico’s already difficult challenge in controlling air pollution has become even tougher. But emergency measures aimed at reducing emissions from older vehicles could only be a temporary solution at best. Let’s hope that air pollution in Mexico City does not need to get as bad as Beijing‘s or Delhi‘s before SEMARNAT adopts the necessary long-term solutions. While each of these cities has sought rapid-response emergency measures (such as emergency or planned vehicle restrictions) to cope with pollution episodes, Beijing’s local government, China’s national government and India have also worked to adopt much cleaner vehicle standards, knowing that otherwise the problem will only get worse.

Mexico needs dramatically cleaner vehicles in order to move beyond contingencies. The first and easiest step would be to reform NOM-044 by immediately adopting the SEMARNAT proposal, delayed since December 2014, to require trucks and buses as clean as those currently sold in the United States and Europe. That would both save lives and reduce climate impacts. While the current policy debate in Mexico is focused on passenger cars, diesel trucks are a huge source of both nitrogen oxides (NOx, a precursor for both ozone and particle formation) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5, a direct cause of stroke, heart attack, and lung disease). On a per-kilometer basis, a new truck today can pollute approximately as much as 100 cars. Because that truck or bus is used more intensely, each truck could pollute on a daily basis as much as 300 to 1,000 cars. Compared to the new trucks sold today, the proposal would reduce PM2.5 and NOx by more than 95%, resulting in emissions approximately equivalent to new gasoline cars currently sold in Mexico. And clearly SEMARNAT needs to reject pressure by industry to weaken the proposal from Euro VI to Euro V, which could actually increase new vehicle NOx emissions by two to four times, and adopt the standard as proposed.

The second step would be to incentivize early introduction of the same vehicles (available in the U.S. and European market for years) and accelerate retirement of the old vehicles on the road. While Mexico allows vehicles to meet either U.S. or European standards, the great majority of heavy-duty trucks sold in Mexico are certified to U.S. standards. As these PM emission standards have not changed in Mexico for 22 years, there is little sense in replacing older vehicles with new ones that are just as polluting. Adoption of the current NOM-044 proposal solves that problem going forward. Add to that the clean fuel enabled both through the liberalization of fuel imports and new fuel quality specifications adopted and under development by the Regulatory Energy Commission (CRE), and you have the necessary ingredients for a whole host of local and national in-use and used-vehicle programs that could help to accelerate the air quality benefits: clean buseslow-emission zonesscrappage of current vehicles; and adoption of the same stringent emissions requirements for used-vehicle imports.

The third step would be to do the same for passenger cars. SEMARNAT does not have a complete proposal in place and ready to go for passenger cars, but they are working on one. Like for trucks, the new standard would harmonize Mexico with the rest of North America, aligning with the most stringent vehicle standards in the world. These standards will also reduce new vehicle emissions by more than 90%, including NOx and hydrocarbon (HC) emissions (the two key ozone precursors) from gasoline vehicles and PM2.5 and NOx from diesel vehicles. Evaporative HC allowed by European standards is especially insidious because these emissions can be 20 times higher than those coming out the tailpipe and are emitted even when the car is parked. Luckily, vehicle manufacturers already produce these world-class vehicles in Mexico, and the cost for the whole package is extremely affordable: to immediately jump to the current best standards in the U.S. or Europe would cost approximately $30–$65 per vehicle, while taking the additional step to maintain alignment with the U.S. out to 2025 would add another $65. Cleaning up heavy-duty vehicles will cost more, but as I explain here it will also reduce fuel consumption, allowing operators to pay back that upfront cost in little time.

New vehicle standards that offer dramatic emissions reductions are the single most cost-effective tool for reducing air pollution available to national governments, even more so in a very well-integrated market such as Mexico, dominated by the leading multinational manufacturers. Even under the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget recognized that “the majority of the quantified benefits [from all US regulations] are attributable to a handful of clean-air rules issued by EPA,” namely those same new vehicle standards that had been adopted under the Bush administration and are proposed above for Mexico. While inspection-and-maintenance and vehicle-restriction programs might seem to some local agencies the best option they have to control vehicle emissions, these programs are costly, complex to put in place, vulnerable to corruption, highly unpopular, and primarily aimed at reducing emissions from older vehicles, which are used less and will eventually stop circulating on their own. Luckily, SEMARNAT has better options available, options that can reduce pollution and health impacts throughout the country and also maximize the benefits of any local programs that are in place. Secretary Pacchiano should look to China and India, which have been grappling with deadly pollution events for several years, to bolster his resolve in transitioning Mexico to the cleanest vehicles possible, as quickly as possible.