Mexico's Al Gore To Make Smog Capital The Greenest City In The Americas

MEXICO CITY _ For decades, Mexico City has been famed for two things: its sprawl and its smog.

But if Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has his way, one of the world's most populous cities also will soon be one of the most green.

Under the mayor's ambitious Green Plan, a 15-year eco-roadmap launched in late 2007, the Mexican capital will have more bike lanes than Amsterdam and more rent-a-bike stations than Paris. All new buildings will be solar-powered and once filthy rivers will run clean -- or at least cleaner.

The program, which extends well beyond the end of the mayor's six-year term in 2012, is a novelty in Mexico's shortsighted political culture. It coordinates nearly two dozen government agencies, which are charged with meeting hundreds of environmental goals, from overhauling the public transportation system to halting rampant deforestation in the city's mountainous fringes.

Then there is Ebrard's pet project: convincing chilangos, as the capital's 9 million residents are known, to swap their polluting cars for bicycles. On the first Monday of each month, the mayor, of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, joins several thousand city officials in biking to work.

"If we don't take the lead in what we want to do, we won't have authority," says Ebrard, who makes no secret of his aspiration to become president in 2012. "Because if I say, 'you go by bike and I'll go in my car,' it won't work."

Many observers describe Ebrard as a cross between Al Gore and Hillary Clinton -- part wonkish environmentalist, part shrewd political operator. The mayor, 49, has a long track record advocating green policies, including helping draft Mexico's first environmental legislation in 1987.

Since taking office in December 2006, he has broken ground on a 12th subway line -- the first such expansion in decades -- and has begun swapping 14,000 smog-belching minibuses and taxis for cleaner models. His government has also poured millions into new sewage treatment plants and hiked water bills to discourage waste. Starting this month, residents who fail to separate their trash into organic and inorganic will be fined.

The Green Plan caught the eye of Bill Clinton, whose foundation has pledged $200 million to help Mexico City meet its goal of slashing greenhouse emissions by 15 percent by 2022.

"There has never been this interest, this priority given to the issue of the environment," says Martha Delgado, a former activist who now heads up the city's Environment Secretariat. "It's a very, very high priority for Marcelo Ebrard."

Environmentalists agree. But many are wary of the mayor's stated ambition to make the capital "the greenest city in the Americas."

"I think the goal should be that things actually work, rather than promising to be No. 1," says Bernardo Baranda, Mexico director for the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. "It's a process and you can't do it overnight."

He notes that many of the anti-smog measures rely on support from the federal government, which is controlled by the rival National Action Party. For example, only the federal government can order the state-owned oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, to produce cleaner fuel.

Ebrard must also bring onboard officials in neighboring Mexico State, which accounts for more than half the 22 million people living in the sprawling Mexico City Metropolitan Area.

Together, they drive more than 4 million cars, a figure that is expected to hit 6.8 million by 2020. Every year, some 4,000 chilangos die of smog-related deaths, according to the city's own figures. And the average driver spends three hours a day in traffic -- equivalent to eight years out of a 70-year lifespan.

Ebrard will also have forces of nature to contend with: Mexico City sits in a 7,000-foot-high valley rimmed by 13,000-foot volcanoes that act as a natural smog trap.

The capital is also plagued with serious water problems. Over-exploitation of underground aquifers has caused areas of the city to sink by as much as 10 inches a year, wreaking havoc on drainage systems and sparking severe flooding. Meanwhile, one-third of the drinking water must be pumped thousands of feet over the mountains from two river basins 80 miles away.

City officials acknowledge the challenges, which they say make the Green Plan that much more urgent.

"The most important thing is that we now have a route marked out of where we need to go," says Delgado. "It's very ambitious and that's how it has to be, because the lack of environmental ambition has led to the mess we're in today." launches January 12, 2009.

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