Thursday, April 5, 2018

Air Pollution in Colombia’s Most Innovative City

Opinion article by: Mera Sue Conger
Business Management student, Universidad EAFIT 


Medellin as Colombia’s second largest and most populated city is experiencing severe problems with air pollution, problems exacerbated by the increasing popularity of cars. The city’s location within a valley causes exhaust fumes to accumulate rather than be blown away like in a coastal city. In 2016 air pollution reached record levels, with Medellin authorities announcing a red alert over the air quality, declaring it a health hazard for the over 3 million residents in the area (Alsema, 2016). According to a study published by the University of Antioquia, air pollution is responsible for 1 death in Medellin every three hours, with the main culprit identified as excess traffic caused by a significant increase in privately owned cars within the city (Gill, 2017). Clearly air pollution is a key issue to tackle in the city’s bid to uphold its reputation as the most innovative city in the world, awarded to it in 2013 by the non-for-profit Urban Land Institute (BBC News, 2013).


Medellin’s former mayor Sergio Fajardo is well-known for his push to improve the public transportation system in Medellin, his greatest triumph being the successful installation of the country’s first metro system. Federico Gutiérrez, the current mayor of Medellin, has announced plans to introduce measures removing the small privately-owned buses that use heavier fuel-burning turbo chargers (Gill, 2016). The city itself has petitioned the national government to force the state-run oil company Ecopetrol to deliver cleaner fuel, and in June installed the first PurpleAir pollution sensor in Latin America in order to deliver real-time air quality data to citizens (Gill, 2016). However as air quality continues to worsen, and continued urbanization increases both the number of potential citizens at risk and the number of cars on Medellin’s roads, it is clear that Medellin needs to take more urgent measures to combat air pollution.


According to a research report published by Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs in partnership with the NGO La Ciudad Verde, there are 7 primary measures that Medellin can take based on sustainability and effectiveness (Bush,, 2017) The report also indicates which organisations are best suited to implement these measures based on political authority and ability. The measures are as follows:
  1. Institutionalize emergency measures (for example in 2016 in addition to declaring red alert the mayor banned use of heavy transport during certain hours)
  2. Regulate motorcycles and second-hand vehicles which are currently more lightly regulated and contribute a significant portion of air pollution
  3.  Improve fuel quality, i.e. by increasing pressure on Ecopetrol
  4. Promote driver behaviour change, e.g. carpooling and using public transport
  5. Promote bicycle ridership, e.g. extend the ‘metro’ network of rentable bikes to more neighbourhood
  6. Place permanent limits on heavy-duty vehicles
  7. Implement vehicle retrofit financing programmes, i.e. safely retiring or modifying existing vehicles to be more environmentally friendly


Medellin is only one of hundreds of large cities around the world struggling with air pollution and can examine the pollution policies of these cities in order to attempt to find best-practice. Beijing is one of China’s most polluted cities, in order to combat this the government has intensified regulations and inspections on major polluters surrounding the city, increased pollution fines exponentially, established a quota on new cars with priority given to fuel-efficient models and solicited investment in green energy technologies (The Conversation, 2017). These measures appear to be working, with PM2.5 levels (common metric for air pollution) decreased by 27% between 2013 and 2016. In particular I recommend that Medellin invest in green energy technologies as this has the most potential for a long-term solution. In both Paris and Delhi the government has experimented with odd-even car bans and total car bans in certain areas (Vidal, 2016). In the Brazilian city Curitiba the local government has expanded the bus system until it is one of the biggest and lowest cost in the world, resulting in nearly 70% of inhabitants using public transport to go to work and record low levels of air pollution compared to the rest of the country’s cities (Vidal, 2016). Medellin already has a comprehensive and very cheap bus system, I recommend the government consider retrofitting its buses to be more fuel efficient.


  • Alsema, A. (2016). Medellin declares red alert over record air pollution levels. Colombia Reports. Retrieved from
  • BBC News. (2013). Colombia's Medellin named 'most innovative city'. Retrieved from
  • Bush, S., Jordan, W., Kim, J., Le, Y., Podar, D., & Torreon, C. (2017). Policy Path to Improve Urban Air Quality in Medellín, Colombia (pp. 6-7). Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. Retrieved from http://file:///C:/Users/keydo_000/Downloads/SIPACapstone_LaCiudadVerde_FinalReport_Spring2017.pdf
  • Gill, S. (2017). Pollution kills one person in Medellin every 3 hours: study. Colombia Reports. Retrieved from
  • The Conversation. (2017). Delhi should follow Beijing’s example in tackling air pollution. Retrieved from
  • Vidal, J. (2016). How are cities around the world tackling air pollution?. The Guardian. Retrieved from

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