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Mexico once led the way on climate policies. Now, it has taken a step backwards

As it steers towards fossil fuels, the Latin American nation is on a path opposite to the objectives of the Paris Agreement

Juanita Rico
18 October 2021, 1.47pm
A lone boat sits in the middle of a dried-out lake bed in Michoacán, Mexico
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Brian Overcast / Alamy Stock Photo

In a region rife with poverty, inequality, corruption and climate disaster, being the country with the highest CO2 emissions is not a compliment; but that’s Mexico.

Despite not being the largest or richest country in Latin America, Mexico has been cementing its path towards fossil fuel dependence over the past 20 years.

As in every Latin American nation, oil has contributed to Mexico's economic growth, despite wind and solar generation tripling in the past five years.

Past administration had positioned Mexico as an important player in climate negotiations; in 2012 it became one of the first nations to introduce climate change legislation.

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However, with the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO as he is best known, as president in 2018, the situation quickly became distressing.

In February 2021, AMLO submitted a bill (which was fast-tracked due to COVID-19) to the Chamber of Deputies called the Electricity Industry Bill, which proposed to reverse the current regulation, created in the energy reforms of 2013, and halt private energy investment in the country. The intention was to secure energy sovereignty, a long-running concern in Mexican politics.

However, the result was the prioritization of the government's own aging, fossil-fueled power plants.

This bill was a clear step back in the clean energy path and contributed to the sense that AMLO has a ‘fossil fuel obsession’. The Mexican government, however, said that the pandemic had caused a drop in electricity demand, and that due to the intermittent nature of renewable energy projects, it could not risk oscillation in the electricity system.

Some projections show Mexico could lose half its workable farms in the coming decade

When the law was being debated, environmentalists, climate activists and academics said that if it was approved, it would be the equivalent of Mexico turning its back on the Paris Agreement. It also set the stage for the country to depend significantly upon fossil fuels like coal and oil.

Regardless of all the bad consequences it could bring, the bill passed in March 2021 and the door for fossil fuel dependency was 100% opened.

In fact, just the next month, AMLO announced gleefully at a climate summit organised by Joe Biden that Mexico had discovered three major new hydrocarbon deposits.

With this context, it is easy to imagine why, on the road to COP26, Mexico is definitely a big concern. Although it signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, hosted the UN climate conference the following year, and has said it will outline more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets, its climate policies and commitments are not consistent and have led to rising, instead of falling, emissions.

But this is no surprise. Mexico, which is the world’s tenth most populous country and eleventh biggest emitter, has failed to meet most of the greenhouse gas targets it signed up to in 2015 as part of the Paris process.

What’s more, AMLO’s government has announced it has no plans to increase its 2030 carbon reduction ambitions, which is contrary to the Paris Agreement’s requirements that each successive set of targets should be tighter than the last.

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All of this appears to go against Mexican public opinion: a 2018 survey of people from 26 countries found that 80% of Mexicans consider climate change a major threat, compared to a median of 68% of people across the nations. The results suggest that global heating is more of a concern in Mexico than in many countries in the Global North, including the UK. It’s no wonder: the country is already becoming much hotter, driving water scarcity and damaging agriculture. Some projections show the country could lose half its workable farms in the coming decade.

Despite all this, the government has decided to favor fossil fuels over renewable energy, including to continue investing in coal. Mexican per-capita emissions are 3.7 tonnes a year, compared to 8.1 tonnes in the UK and 17.6 in the US. But as it steers towards fossil fuels, Mexico is on a path opposite to the 1.5°C objectives of the Paris Agreement.

The harsh reality is that if all countries were to follow Mexico's steps, global warming would rise not just to 2°C but to 3 or even 4°C; a sad situation for the country that, five years ago, was the first developing country to submit a plan to cut carbon emissions ahead of COP21 in Paris.

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