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Amanda Maxwell’s Blog

The Solution to Mexico's Air Pollution Problem could serve as a Model for North American Leaders as they meet to Discuss Trade Negotiations

Amanda Maxwell

Posted February 19, 2014 in Curbing Pollution, Living Sustainably

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President Obama is meeting today with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the North American Leaders Summit in Toluca, Mexico. With the meeting taking place on the heels of the 20th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Alliance (NAFTA), expectations are high that the heads of state will spend much time discussing the further integration of the three North American economies, particularly the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. While analysts tout NAFTA’s economic successes as reasons to proceed with the TPP, an area in which the first agreement has failed—and the second must not—is in environmental concerns. This covers a broad range of sections in the TPP beyond just the environmental chapter. Yet there is one specific and concrete way that the three leaders can advance their goal of integration while simultaneously addressing environmental, climate and public health concerns: work with Mexico to prioritize adopting and integrating new fuel quality and vehicle emissions regulations that would harmonize with those in the U.S. and Canada.

Although the air pollution in Mexico has vastly decreased in the last two decades, levels of harmful pollutants such as particulate matter and ozone are still above the World Health Organization’s recommended levels in many Mexican cities. One of the main culprits is the transportation sector: the country’s fleet of inefficient trucks and cars consume dirty diesel fuels and emit high levels of black carbon (the second most powerful contributor to climate change behind carbon dioxide) and particulate matter. These contaminants not only impact the environment and worsen climate change, they also have grave effects on people. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified black carbon, particulate matter and outdoor air pollution generally as carcinogens. In 2010, the World Health Organization said that 14,700 people in Mexico died from outdoor air pollution.

Fortunately, the solutions to this problem are known, tried and tested. In fact, President Obama successfully spearheaded efforts to implement the solutions in the U.S. By combining diesel fuels with ultra-low levels of sulfur and emissions control technologies in vehicles, air pollution from diesel combustion falls drastically. If Mexico adopted and implemented regulations requiring ultra-low sulfur fuels now, emissions of particulate matter for all vehicles would drop by 5 to 10 percent overnight. In addition, these fuels would enable vehicles to have advanced particulate filters (these are necessary to get the most out of ultra-low sulfur fuels), resulting in a 90 percent reduction of particulate matter.

Mexico has been working on standards to require ultra-low sulfur fuels (that is, diesel and gasoline) and to regulate emissions from heavy and light duty vehicles for about a decade, yet none have been successfully adopted and implemented. By prioritizing this one issue, Peña Nieto’s administration has a great opportunity to make progress on a variety of fronts: to clean up the air that Mexicans breathe, to reduce the emissions that contribute to climate change, to save money in health costs, and to increase trade in North America by harmonizing these transportation standards with the regulations that the U.S. and Canada have already adopted.

Yes, that’s right – these regulations would benefit the U.S. and Mexico, too! If President Obama and Prime Minister Harper share with President Peña Nieto their experiences passing these regulations and the benefits their countries have reaped from doing so, the administration might just get the nudge it needs to push them over the finish line.

If they prioritize and address this single, specific issue in Mexico, the three North American neighbors could have a tangible –indeed a visible—success for all. As they proceed with the TPP negotiations today and in the coming months, actions like this should serve as an example that strong environmental standards can actually work in union with economic concerns. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, a recently leaked draft of the environment chapter of the TPP showed that the agreement really misses the mark in many of its environmental provisions. High environmental standards must be an integral part of the TPP as it moves forward.

And they must be a critical part of the discussions taking place in Toluca today. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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