Reasons to celebrate on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border - and for presidents to act together

Good news for people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border who don’t want to breathe dirty air: efforts in Mexico to align our two countries’ car fuel economy standards just overcame a major legal challenge from industry, opening the path for cleaner cars to become a reality in the country. Other challenges remain, but this was a key win. At the same time, the reelection of President Obama – who successfully demanded better vehicles from the auto industry during his first term – ensures that Mexican President-elect Peña Nieto will have an ally if he prioritizes public health, better transportation and clean air after taking office in December.

The proposed fuel economy standards for Mexico – which would harmonize the car and light truck fleets there with those of the U.S. to achieve 35 mpg by 2016 – are the results of years of collaboration and consultation among various Mexican government agencies, U.S. and Mexican transportation advocates, and the automotive industry. The program would save Mexican drivers around $39 billion dollars and 70 billion liters of fuel, and would cut about 170 million tons of greenhouse gases. The standards were nearing the finish line when a lawsuit, filed by Toyota, brought the process to a halt in late-October. My colleagues, Rich Kassel and Roland Hwang, wrote more about Toyota’s actions here and here, respectively.

It was encouraging to learn that an administrative court in Mexico City overruled Toyota’s lawsuit last week; it seemed the standards were again on a path towards approval. But another injunction, this time from Chrysler –following Toyota’s lead—may now hold up the process again. The sad fact is the longer these car companies delay Mexico’s fuel economy standards, the longer the Mexican people will have to breathe dirty air and buy more fuel.

I had the privilege of participating in a workshop recently with a diverse collection of organizations and individuals who are all working to improve air quality, public transportation, and mobility in Mexico. The meeting could not have been timelier: the Toyota lawsuit perfectly illustrated the kind of obstacles we face as we endeavor to create cleaner, healthier cities and towns.

My colleagues at the workshop identified another critical challenge to our efforts: the fact that most Mexicans do not believe air pollution is an urgent concern for them. They do not see Mexico’s low air quality as a health risk. Unfortunately, the numbers say otherwise. A look at data from the World Health Organization shows that:

In addition a new report, available here and here, from the Colectivo Ecologista Jalisco found that the number of vehicles in the Guadalajara metropolitan area alone increased 112 percent from 2000-2011, thereby increasing ozone concentration by 40 percent.

From uncooperative companies to a lack of public awareness, to the sheer quantity of dirty cars already on the roads, the obstacles to building a better transportation sector and cleaner air on Mexico are great. But the scope and depth of the challenges are matched by the creativity and dedication of these groups to find solutions. As President-elect Peña Nieto prepares to step into Mexico’s driver’s seat, he should prioritize these issues to protect his people, build a healthier economy and more sustainable future. And, he should find a confident and experienced ally in President Obama during his second term.

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