When President Barack Obama sits down Wednesday with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Toluca, Mexico, they will have a lot to talk about: competitiveness, economic integration and security, among others.
But if they pause to look out the window of their meeting place, the elegant Palacio de Gobierno, they will see something else they should be discussing – Mexico’s continuing air pollution problem. The picturesque colonial city has some of the country’s worst air pollution. However, unlike some intractable issues the leaders face, this one has a workable solution close at hand.
It’s an important matter not only for Mexicans, but for Americans, too. Cleaner air will mean not only healthier people, but a healthier Mexican economy, which is good for trade and investment, and pollution standards harmonized with America’s and Canada’s will strengthen the whole North American market.
Mexico has already made strides in cleaning up some of its worst sources of dirty air, but an acute problem remains – the sooty, toxic exhaust belching from the country’s hundreds of thousands of diesel-fueled heavy duty trucks and buses and light-duty vehicles.
Global health experts say dirty diesel exhaust can cause cancer in people. Ozone and other contaminants, which in Mexico far exceed World Health Organization standards, and which are produced by dirty diesel engines, contribute to health-harming smog. The large amount of particulate matter – another component of diesel exhaust – is especially dangerous because it can penetrate deep into people’s lungs. Moreover, studies show that roadside diesel pollution is linked to asthma, with the worst effects on children.
The World Health Organization said air pollution of all kinds killed 14,700 Mexicans in 2010.
Two linked culprits are responsible for Mexico’s diesel pollution: the high amount of sulfur in diesel fuel, and the vehicle fleet’s dirty, inefficient engines. Both sides of the equation must be tackled at once – ultra-low sulfur diesel, such as what’s available in the U.S. and Canada, is necessary to operate low-emission vehicles.
In recent years, progress has been made in developing national standards that would cut sharply the harm being done by diesel fumes. But action has stalled. Strong, positive encouragement from Obama could persuade Peña Nieto to finalize and implement the standards.
If adopted, three pending regulations could make a big difference:
Ultra-low sulfur fuels. Most Mexican diesel now contains 300 parts per million of sulfur. That needs to come down to 15 ppm to match the U.S. and Canada. President Peña Nieto’s National Energy Strategy 2013-2020 identifies the need to move to ultra-low sulfur fuels.
Heavy-duty vehicle emissions standards. Heavy trucks are a major source of dangerous particulate pollution and officials are negotiating with industry on standards comparable with American ones.
Light-duty vehicle emissions standards. These haven’t been updated since 2010, and Mexican regulators have been slow to start developing new ones that would match the latest U.S. rules.
Adopting and implementing ultra-low sulfur fuels would reduce particulate matter for all vehicles overnight by 5 to 10 percent. More important, it would enable the use of advanced particulate filters that can reduce particulate matter by more than 90 percent.
Cleaner, more efficient trucks would cut down emissions of all kinds, including the carbon dioxide and soot that contribute to climate change.
Transportation is the biggest factor in Mexico’s climate emissions, and the black carbon soot in dirty diesel exhaust is the second most powerful contributor to climate change. Addressing Mexico’s transportation pollution will boost regional climate change efforts.
These common-sense steps won’t solve all Mexico’s air pollution woes, but the government’s top officials know the changes are in their country’s own interest. They are certainly important to the United States. Obama and Peña Nieto can do the citizens of their countries a big favor by committing to get these standards adopted as quickly as possible.