Image: Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador tours oil platform in his home state of Tabasco. Source: El Dictamen.
As the COP-26 summit in Glasgow passed rather disappointingly, perhaps no country better symbolizes the current malaise than Mexico. Latin America’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, Mexico’s per capita emissions rank among the region’s worst. Rather than seize the opportunity for greater change, Mexico’s summit performance was desultory. It did not have to be.
A decade prior, Mexico hosted the COP-16 conference in Cancún, playing a leadership role among developing countries. In the aftermath, Congress passed a General Law on Climate Change with near unanimity, making it one of the first countries to do so. All major parties were on board, and conservative President Felipe Calderón promptly signed the bill into law. The state would generate 35 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2024 and halve total emissions by 2050. The law elaborated reductions in fossil fuel subsidies, created new agencies, and outlined programs in conservation, mitigation, and adaptation. In 2015, Mexico quickly ratified the Paris Agreement, becoming the first developing country to submit a Nationally-Determined Contribution (NDC). They outlined unconditional emissions cuts and a pledge to stop deforestation by 2030. Later, Mexico vowed to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2030 and developed a Carbon Tax and Emissions Trading System. But times have changed.
The Climate Action Tracker classifies Mexico’s current efforts as “Critically Insufficient”—the worst category. While Mexico updated its original pledges in the run-up to COP-26, its documents were thin in substance and offered no attempts at conceptualizing a net-zero future. Although the Foreign Ministry re-iterated support for multilateral efforts and a “commitment to make climate change a priority,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) skipped the conference, mocking the attendees as “neoliberals and technocrats.” For the Paris Agreement to succeed, every country must voluntarily ratchet up its commitments and match words with actions. Mexico’s newfound refusal stands out, and AMLO is the impediment.
In terms of renewable energy, Mexico trails every major regional economy. Trends continue sliding in the wrong direction. While renewables grew after two large auctions in 2015 and 2018, the rate is grossly insufficient to meet rising demand. As a share of final energy consumption, renewables fell to 67 percent of their share in 1990. Fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, generate most of Mexico’s electricity and the energy sector produces 90 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.
A land of high desert, Mexico boasts potential for sizable solar and wind investments. The International Renewable Energy Agency calculated renewables could realistically hit 46 percent of total electricity by 2030. Accelerating the transition would provide savings of 7.2 dollars per megawatt-hour (MWh), some USD $1.6 billion annually, without counting the positive public health impacts of fewer emissions. For a president who admires “republican austerity,” cost-cutting, and balanced budgets, this should represent great news.
Despite AMLO’s welcomed interest in combating troubling levels of poverty and inequality, the environment remains a worrying blind spot. His administration cycled through three ministers of the environment in three years. Whether looking at deforestation rates or protected areas, he frequently underperforms against his predecessors. His administration gutted budgets for environmental protection agencies and criticized public funding for scientific conferences as “extravagant and abusive.” Many talented government bureaucrats and scientists are heading to the exit. He berates environmental activists and organizations as “foreign agents” and belittles their concerns. The two objects of their ire—a tourist train through sensitive ecological and indigenous zones in the Yucatán Peninsula and a new refinery—plow forward despite the questionable economic value and extreme socio-environmental impacts.
But energy is where AMLO displays his most severe limitations. His party platform mentions renewable energy as a potential “industry of the future,” but more ink is devoted to energy self-sufficiency, shoring up Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), discouraging cheaper US imports, and expanding national refining capacity. Discussion of solar, wind, or hydroelectric investments is nil. The president’s environmental plan included vague promises to build more hydroelectric dams, but forecasts are a mere 5 gigawatts by 2050. Again, the plan does not mention solar and wind energy.
Perhaps, the disinterest is unsurprising. AMLO was born in the tiny town of Macuspana, Tabasco—10 miles from Ciudad Pemex and one of the most important gas processing facilities. Growing up in the heydays of the 1970s, the president frequently rhapsodizes the history of the state-run petroleum company PEMEX as an era of sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and national pride. Yet, concurrent with significant economic growth, rising incomes, and modernization stimulated by the booming oil industry, massive inefficiencies, and rampant corruption gnawed at the future success of the state-run monopoly. After the 1990s, successive governments attempted to address the problem by opening PEMEX to foreign investment and more competition. The hope was reforms would encourage greater technology transfers, transparency, and financial stability.
Excoriating his predecessors as neoliberal “vende-patrias,” Obrador pursued the opposite path—scaring off investors while draining public coffers of some $20 billion to shore up PEMEX. He rolled back reforms that encouraged greater competition in the energy sector and halted auctions on 200 clean energy projects, leaving them in limbo.
To maintain the state-owned Federal Electricity Commission’s (CFE) market share, new rules force regulators to prioritize the carbon-dependent energy produced by the CFE over greener, cheaper sources from private investors. While courts are reviewing some of these measures, the message is unmistakable. Obrador will sacrifice a fledgling green energy boom to maintain his retrograde belief that a carbon-dominated energy matrix is the future. This decision is exponentially more consequential because of the characteristics of Mexican crude.
Crude oil comes in varieties that differ in density and sulfur content. Mexico’s most common type is called Maya-22, a heavy-density, high-sulfur grade of crude. Experts call this type “sour” due to its high sulfur level. “Heavy” and “sour” crude requires extensive refining and energy inputs to make it more “light” and “sweet.” Maya-22 is the sourest, heaviest crude oil on the planet.
Source: US Energy Information Administration. 2012.
Despite modest improvements, Mexico retains some of the worst air in the world, regularly superseding WHO recommended levels. Sulfur Dioxide (S02) is a chief culprit, and Mexico is the fourth-largest emitter of S02 in the world. The refinery outside Obrador’s birthplace specializes in removing sulfur, a highly toxic element, from gas. The process produces S02 emissions, which cause acid rain and are highly damaging to human respiratory systems. High-sulfur fuels are so dirty, the global shipping industry banned their use. Facing a glut from declining exports, Mexico is shifting the excess to electricity generation despite the negative social and environmental consequences. The president proclaims greater energy independence at the cost of his citizens’ health. The situation is reaching a point where many multinational companies, including General Motors, are warning Obrador’s plans threaten future investments.
The Future Foretold
Paradoxically, Obrador’s home, Tabasco, is also one of the Mexican states most vulnerable to climate change. In 2007, floods overwhelmed nearly 80% of the state, including the capital Villahermosa, leaving an estimated one million people homeless. Floodplains and wetland areas dominate the largely coastal, low-lying state. The constant extraction of petroleum and gas exacerbates the situation, causing the land to sink. Heavy rains and severe hurricanes will likely worsen. Coupled with rising sea levels, catastrophic flooding events are increasing. Poor Mexicans with few resources continually experience the immiserating loss of their few assets—homes, vehicles, furniture, stoves, and refrigerators with little to no compensation and little ability to move. Flooding threatens a number of schools, hospitals, and roads. Government estimates only find Campeche and Baja California more precariously positioned.
Recently, the Pew Research Center found 80 percent of Mexicans identify climate change as the greatest threat to the nation—one of the highest levels in the survey and the highest in Latin America. Because AMLO loves to cultivate his image as a “man-of-the-people,” his dismissive attitude towards climate change is particularly jarring. While he cannot be re-elected president, AMLO neglects his country’s concerns and vulnerabilities at his own peril.
Climate change is a slow-moving process. Our efforts to mitigate our impact and increase sustainability need to be faster. Mexico is not the only country shirking its responsibility. Yet, a previous leader has turned laggard—to its detriment. In this era, a “pro-poor” president cannot ignore the environmental consequences of his economic policy.