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Santiago struggles to deal with its longtime smog woes.

Beginning in the 1980s, whenever pollution has reached high levels, cars have been banned from circulating in the Metropolitan Region, the use of lumber for heating has been prohibited and sports activities are suspended, among other regulations. In the early 1990s, there were about 100 pollution alerts or emergencies a year; last year, there were 20.

Two things were key to these achievements: the introduction of catalytic converters in cars and Santiago’s switch to natural gas. In the mid-1990s, Chile and Argentina signed a deal to provide Chile with a cheap and clean source of fuel. Many vehicles, households and companies adapted their processes and technologies to use natural gas, and the difference in air quality was evident.

Then five years ago, Argentina began closing the pipeline, saying it needed to guarantee domestic supply before selling abroad.

As a result, industries and power plants turned to diesel and fuel oil, once again increasing air pollution. The government, meanwhile, drew up plans for a plant that would import liquefied natural gas and convert it for domestic consumption. The plant is due to begin operating this winter.

Another government plan to decrease pollution had unintended consequences. An overhaul of the public transportation system was so poorly designed that it resulted in more cars on the streets. In addition, the government hasn't demanded that all buses install proper filters. (Lagos, however, hails the fact that from the 14,000 unregulated, contaminating buses in the capital in the late 1980s, there are now 6,500 that use cleaner technologies.)

The updated version of the decontamination plan has stricter standards and enforcement measures and, among other things, encourages bicycle use. It would further restrict car use during high-smog periods.

Lagos said the plan will impose more regulations on firewood use, a large source of contamination in Santiago, and will reduce the level of sulfur in kerosene — widely used in low-income households for heating.

But critics say that focusing just on standards and technology is a mistake.

“Policy-makers aren’t tackling the problem with a global, city perspective,” said Paola Vasconi of the environmental NGO Terram Foundation.

Environmental scientist Marcelo Mena of the Andres Bello University in Santiago believes that much more could be done. “The main obstacle is the lack of political resolve to implement measures that are more than justified by economic assessments,” he said.

Last December, Mena was appointed to the new position of “air manager” — a sort of czar of the decontamination plan. He lacked the powers to be effective in his role, and he resigned in March.

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