Mexico’s Environmental Contingency Plan and the Covid Pandemic
By ALEJANDRO ENVILA FISHER
Once again, the the very midst of a surge in covid-19 infections, Mexico City Governor Claudia Sheinbaum on decreed a series of illogical and impractical restrictions on the circulation of private vehicles for Wednesday, June 8, due to an environmental contingency. With this order, she sent hundreds of thousands of Mexico City residents scrambling to get to their work or schools, resorting to public transport and an increased of covid contagion.
But while the so-called environmental contingency plan wreaked havoc across the city, it did little or nothing to curb pollution levels.
The fact is that the plan is based on an old, outdated, ineffective and scientifically unfounded ecological public policy measure: the restriction of private circulation due to bad weather conditions in Mexico City.
The absence of a serious, science-based environmental policy, far removed from gimmicky populism, continues to take its toll on the capital’s residents. High air pollution levels are not just a nuisance, but an increased health risk on two fronts: the increased risk of respiratory disease and possible exposure to covid-19.
The coronavirus pandemic in Mexico is not over, and while the death toll and serious infections may be down, the disease is still present and still taking lives.
Mexico’s Environmental Commission of the Megalopolis’ (Came) vehicle circulation restriction model to combat pollution was effective — temporarily — in the Mexico of the 1990s and leaded fuels. But it soon lost much of its usefulness when it became permanent because it became a source of corruption first and revenue later. And it totally stopped making sense when the reformulation of unleaded gasoline arrived.
Since then, there has never been any environmental contingency for a lethal element, such as lead, in the environment.
Today, Came’s environmental alerts are based on the number of ozone particles in the air, and, since ozone is a gas of multifactorial origin (it is generated from the combination of various gases that derive from different activities), it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the exact source of this irritant.
Notwithstanding, there has never been a single solid study that demonstrates that internal combustion engines are ozone precursors or that restricting vehicular circulation causes its reduction in the atmosphere.
The fact that Mexico’s extended Day-without-a-Car program has not produced any tangible results reiterates this fact.
Claudia Sheinbaum is a woman of science, who at one time served as Mexico’s secretary of the environment — albeit with a very unremarkable performance — when Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) was mayor of Mexico City (2000-2005). She has the scientific facts at her disposal, and she knows full well, like her predecessors and her successors, that cars have not been the cause of the poor environmental conditions in the Valley of Mexico for years.
But true to political form, Sheinbaum has allowed herself to be trapped by the pseudo-environmentalist bureaucracy of the capital’s public administration, headed by Víctor Hugo Páramo. This man and his group of pretend tree-huggers have seized the gimmicky discourse of the 1980s and 1990s, when CO and CO2, in addition to lead, were present in high concentrations in the atmosphere of the Valley of Mexico, to prolong an ineffective environmental policy.
The price of this folly is paid for by the capital’s residents, who must find alternative means of transport when the Came decides to announce — always last-minutely — that their vehicles cannot circulate the next day. And many families end up spending unnecessary money to try to purchase a new car in search of that illusive O or 00 decals, which, it turns out, isn’t even a guarantee that their car can circulation, since the contingency plan arbitrarily includes vehicles that have been shown to be ecologically sound.
The Came’s environmental contingency plan is anything but ecological. It is a pretense to harass the city’s population and limit their mobility when, in fact, the real culprit for high ozone levels are the government’s own electric power plants.
Simply put, the restriction on vehicular circulation does not help reduce ozone levels because cars do not produce ozone. To date, it has not rendered any positive results in improving the capital’s air quality. Instead, it only contributes to raising the level of risk of covid contagion, by forcing people to use public transport when they could travel in their own cars.
It has been known for years that greenhouse gases are generated by activities other than the ignition of the internal combustion engine, thanks to the fact the automotive industry changed its technology.
The largest precursor of greenhouse gases in the world is the generation of electricity. And that is the case in Mexico.
Under the mandate of AMLO, Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) Director Manuel Bartlett has opted for dirty energy, generated from burning oil, instead of gas, in old combined-cycle plants. That is why scientific evidence points to the Tula Combined Cycle Thermoelectric Power Plant as being the main source for the recent — and increasingly regular — environmental contingencies in the Valley of Mexico.
If the government of Mexico City really wanted to curb ozone levels, it would close down this plant, not restrict vehicles from circulating.
A healthy environment must include clean air. This is part of the Human Right to Health, and achieving it is everyone’s responsibility. While Mexico City car owners are required to verify every six months that their cars are not polluting, the CFE’s thermoelectric plants are not required to pass a verification to operate.
It is no coincidence that the CFE’s return to burning oil to generate electricity has coincided with a return to environmental contingencies in the Valley of Mexico.
Sheinbaum’s participation in the farce of day-without-a-car contingencies is not motivated by environmental concerns, but by politics. She has presidential ambitions, and in order to achieve them, she knows she must accept the mandates of López Obrador, no matter illogical and unscientific they may be.