Commentary
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The US has finally acted on climate change policy. What’s holding Mexico back?

The U.S. has been less idle than Mexico, but the bar is set low: renewable energy investment here is down to a fifth of what it was five years ago

Mexico’s reputation as a slacker on climate change policy is well-deserved. Less accurate is the assumption that the United States has been a cheerleader for the cause.

In truth, the two neighbors have, until recently, followed similarly sluggish paths for most of this century.

Both have skin in the game: Mexico is Latin America’s leading carbon emitter from energy use; the U.S. trails only China for the same dubious honor worldwide. Mexico is especially vulnerable to climate-caused crises, placed as it is between two rising oceans. U.S. residents from coast to coast got an uncomfortable preview last week of climate change as they sweltered under Fahrenheit temperatures higher than their average bowling scores. 

Both countries are model global citizens on paper. Mexico has joined the United States at most of the major climate change conferences — and has even hosted one, COP-16 in 2010 — and it signed on to the Paris Accords in 2015, pledging to do its share in reducing carbon emissions. 

Mexico passed its own climate change legislation in the waning days of the Felipe Calderón administration (2006–2012), committing itself to generating 35% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2024 and cutting total emissions in half by 2050. That’s in addition to putting a full stop to deforestation by 2030 and phasing out coal by that same year.

Yet, Mexico is not on track to achieve these goals. Pledges and documents don’t slow global warming without action. 

Bloomberg’s news service reported earlier this year that renewable energy investment in Mexico is down to about a fifth of what it was five years ago. More recently, the New York Times, citing Mexican government sources, said that no major wind or solar projects have been approved since 2019. More than 50 applications have gathered dust in the inbox. 

A research group called Climate Action Tracker grades the 32 top carbon-emitting countries on their progress toward meeting internationally agreed upon goals in three categories. In July, the group gave Mexico grades from “insufficient” to “critically insufficient”  — not the kind of report card you want to take home to your parents.

The two countries’ paths forked last month with the passage of bold legislation in the United States that is designed to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels. Of course, legislation does not equal action on the ground, but in this case, it has started motivating investors by reducing the risk they take by going all in on alternative energy and by promising consumers a break on electric car costs.

Optimistically, this policy will reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 40% below the 2005 level within eight years, not all that far from the 50% reduction called for in the Paris Accords.

A side benefit may be the removal of the adjective “inconsistent” (many prefer “hypocritical”) from descriptions of the U.S.’ green diplomacy, i.e., urging other countries to take steps to reduce fossil fuel use that the U.S. hasn’t taken itself. Indeed, the subject came up this week when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken invited Mexico to take advantage of the new legislation’s investor support clauses to manufacture the special semiconductors required for electric vehicles. 

However, if you think Mexico’s ready to hop on the electric train, you haven’t been paying attention. Here, wind and solar are mere distractions from the real energy sources – gas, oil and coal. The current policy is to increase fossil fuel use, not eliminate it. 

Why is that? Why is Mexico doubling down on an energy policy that is demonstrably harmful for Mexicans, especially those living in poverty?

Such questions usually lead to the tired name-calling war between AMLO-phobes and AMLO-philes. The former tend to blame President López Obrador for all the nation’s ills and see no reasons for the energy policy decisions, just ignorance, if not outright malice. The AMLO-philes see the opposition as traitors, out to sabotage his “Fourth Transformation” of the country, and do not need to hear the president’s reasons.

They’re both wrong. AMLO has his reasons for championing fossil fuels and shying away from renewable energy, and while you may disagree with them, they are important to understand. 

Let’s look at them, one by one:

  1. Mexico is in austerity mode. The new U.S. initiative is a spending bill. It encourages clean energy through subsidies, tax breaks and favorable loan conditions. The current Mexican administration is not in the mood to spend big on anything, save for a train through the jungle and an oil refinery near the shore. 
  2. Short-term economic jolts would be likely. For example, nothing riles up the masses more than a hike in gasoline prices. During a transition to renewables, such hikes are inevitable. On the other hand, expanding the fossil fuel industry can keep gasoline prices down. 
  3. Financing renewables clashes with the prevailing ideology. López Obrador ran for president (three times) opposing private investment in most Mexican resources. In office, he has given priority to the state-run enterprises — Pemex for oil and the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) for electricity. One might think that government control over the energy sector would make it easier to impose policies to reduce carbon emissions, but it doesn’t work that way. Only private capital has the means to invest in renewables and the patience to wait for the returns. As long as AMLO is president, they probably won’t get the chance.
  4. Mexico’s president is an oil guy from an oil state. Oil is in his DNA, and it’s no coincidence that one of his administration’s major projects is an oil refinery located in his home state (in Dos Bocas, Tabasco). This industry has lifted many poor Tabascans out of poverty. Why not the rest of the nation?
  5.  Oil is a powerful nationalist symbol. Since the petroleum industry was confiscated from foreign exploiters in 1938, oil has taken on an almost mythical quality in the populace’s hearts and minds. If it sounds ridiculous to let that kind of abstraction influence energy policy during a pending climate crisis, that’s because it is. But don’t underestimate the power of myth in politics. 
  6. Pressure from civil society is weak. Action won’t come without the masses demanding it; so far, they haven’t. Sadly, past attempts at large alternative energy developments have carried on the regrettable Mexican tradition of ignoring the rights — if not the very existence — of poor and indigenous communities living on the project sites, turning potential supporters into opponents.

Noting the reasons above won’t save the planet, but it does help provide context for the government’s intransigence; so might noting the few bright spots — for example, the nearly-complete solar power facility in Sonora, which the administration itself likes to brag about.

The president himself has even said recently that he recognized that a transition to clean energy is inevitable. But of course he added that Mexico is not ready for that transition, thus paraphrasing St. Augustine’s famous plea: “O lord, grant me chastity and continence . . . but not yet.”

Kelly Arthur Garrett has been writing from Mexico since 1992.

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