Mexico City can show us the way in tackling increasing air pollution - Hindustan Times
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Mexico City can show us the way in tackling increasing air pollution

Oct 15, 2019 11:54 PM IST

For those living in and around Delhi, this year’s Dussehra celebration was a notch above as the national capital had the cleanest post-Dussehra air in the last five years. Favourable metrological conditions, coupled with some local action on the ground, courtesy the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) contributed to relatively clean air. However, the euphoria was short-lived, and change in weather mood, and the stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana are bringing down the air quality.

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As per the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR), Delhi’s air quality has remained ‘poor’ for the 5th consecutive day. Similarly, Gurugram’s air quality went to the ‘poor’ category on Monday, after three months of relatively clean air. The forecast is not good. The impact of stubble burning is only going to grow. Diwali and a dip in temperature will only make the matter worse.

The question is, can something be done to fight this toxic air? Cleaning the air is possible, and there are many examples from the US, Europe, China, etc. However, a lot of times, we dismiss these examples saying that these are out of context. Therefore, let me give an example from Mexico. Mexico City is the same size as Delhi and in last couple of decades its war against air pollution has seen some tangible change. So what did it do? Let me present three important lessons from Mexico City, which are relevant for a city like Gurugram.

Measure to manage

If you can measure, you cant manage. It’s that simple. The fight against air pollution starts with understanding of the problem in a scientific manner. Mexico City Atmospheric Monitoring System or SIMAT as it is commonly know is made up of 45 monitoring sites. As many as 34 of them are used to do detailed measurement like ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Mexico City now also monitors temperature, humidity, ultraviolet solar radiation, pressure, direction and wind speed in order to learn how pollutants are transported during the day. These measurements are important to understand the severity of the problem, which is a starting point for action.

As against this, Gurugram has only one station at Vikas Sadan. This will surely not give a correct picture of the air pollution scenario in the city. The number of monitoring stations has to go up significantly.

Forecast to act

Once the baseline in set, it is easy to do short term forecasts. Mexico City has developed an innovative tool, which is able to forecast the air quality 24 hours in advance. These advance forecasts are thoroughly reliable. These forecasts are based on solid real time data. The forecast uses the metrological data to predict the climatic condition, along with emission data from its emission inventories. The changes in the atmospheric chemistry is added the forecast model to get predict the air quality in advance. Air quality forecasting may not necessary improve air quality but it is an effective way of protecting public health by providing an early warning against toxic air. This is not only important for children and other vulnerable groups but also for events and public gathering. For example, a major sporting event in Delhi is less than four days away. What will be the quality of air when 30,000 plus people will be running in central Delhi? And will it be beneficial for public health?

Demonstrate to scale

The biggest downside to air pollution is that there is a lot of talk but not equivalent action. This is not the case in Mexico City. ProAire, the clean air programme, was launched in 1995. The fourth phase of the programme, which is currently underway has eight strategies and 116 action items. As many as 98 of the 116 action items are the responsibility of the Mexico City. Some of the key steps taken by the city government in Mexico include scaling up high capacity, low emission mass transit system and improving the maintenance and inspection programme for private vehicles, efficient management of solid waste in the city, making buildings more energy efficient, scaling up renewable energy through rooftop solar in public as well as private buildings, and reducing the burning of agricultural waste. A lot of these actions sound pretty similar to what is prescribed for our cities. Mexico City shows that these are doable.

Mexico City had a total of 334 dangerous air quality days in 1994. The number was 118 in 2012. That’s almost 2/3rd reduction in 18 years. The number improved further. Strong political commitment, robust action and clear measurement were key reasons for its success. However, the air pollution problem is far from over. The reduction in the concentration of secondary pollutants such as ozone and fine particles (PM 2.5 ) is still a challenge in Mexico City. This will require a new set of policies and action but the city is much better prepared to take action.

Mexico City had the most toxic air in 1992 amongst the top 20 megacities of the world. Gurugram was judged to have most toxic air last year. So, if Mexico City can clean its air, so can Gurugram. But this will require substantive action because there are no quick fixes to cleaning the air.

@amitbhatt4u

(Amit Bhatt is the director- integrated transport, WRI India)

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