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Climate Change and the Environment in Mexico

Waterfalls in Chiapas
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Our July Monthly Expat Poll asked the question: “Do you think Mexico is doing a good job of managing its environment?” To date, 63 percent of our readers have said no, while 37 percent believe the country has done a good job. Answers are most often based on personal experiences and perceptions, so we decided to take a closer look at climate change and the environment in Mexico.

Mexico became the first developing country to pass a General Climate Change Law in 2012, which established a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2020 and reducing those emissions by 50 percent below the 2000 level by 2050. Additionally, a goal to generate 35 percent of the country’s electricity from clean energy sources was set by legislation in 2008.

On September 21, 2016, Mexico delivered its ratification of the Paris Agreement, which is within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. To date, 197 countries have signed the pact and 185 have ratified their agreements.

Abundance of Nature
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Mexico agreed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) by 22 percent and black carbon emissions by 51 percent by 2030. It also committed to peaking net emissions in 2026 and reducing emissions per unit of GDP by around 40 percent from 2013 to 2030. Finally, the country signed on to take additional measures to lessen the vulnerability of its communities to climate change. This included a commitment to achieve zero percent deforestation by 2030, according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

But the realities of fighting climate change and protecting the environment is a difficult task. The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, a research institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science, took a look at Mexico’s achievements last fall and concluded there is much work to be done.

“Mexico’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow. In 2015, the country emitted 683 million tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent, an increase of 54 percent over the 1990 level, or 1.7 percent annually. Mexico is currently the world’s 10th largest greenhouse gas emitter.”

Grantham had more to say about the current state of reducing emissions in Mexico.

“Energy generation is heavily based on fossil fuels (80 percent). Mexico has a long legacy of oil dependence. This makes the sector influential in national politics.”

The country, however, is making progress in this area. Petrochemicals and oil-derivative products accounted for 13 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product until the mid-200s, but fell to about 8 percent by 2016.

Grantham pointed out that in April of last year, Mexico’s government amended the General Law on Climate Change, becoming one of the first countries to modify its domestic legislation to make it more consistent with the Paris Agreement. The new legislation recognizes the need to undertake efforts to keep global temperature rise to within 2 C above pre-industrial levels and keep the increase below 1.5 C. It also amends the emission reduction objectives, which includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions 22 percent and black carbon 51 percent by 2030. There is also a conditional target to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP 40 percent by 2030.

A man standing between ideal climate and drought
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So, how is Mexico doing so far? We looked at global metrics for the environment by Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index, which ranks 180 countries on a variety of performance indicators. The metrics measure how close countries are to established environmental policy goals. Overall, Mexico scored 59.69 on a 100-point scale, which placed the country 72nd out of 180 countries measured. Here are the results by worldwide rank on 12 key metrics:

  • Environmental Health 81
  • Air Quality 75
  • Water & Sanitation 79
  • Heavy Metals 117
  • Ecosystem Vitality 72
  • Biodiversity 94
  • Habitat Forests 76
  • Fisheries 110
  • Climate & Energy 107
  • Air Pollution 75
  • Water Reserves 43
  • Agriculture 64

Perceived progress on global warming and the environment ultimately, though, comes down to our personal experiences. Take pollution, for example. The United Nations Environment Program took a look at Mexico and found that Mexican cities are dominated by vehicles, which may reach 70 million by 2030. The challenge is dealing with traffic congestion and air pollution, especially from older vehicles. Five metropolitan areas of Mexico – Valley of Mexico, Monterrey, Guadalajara, Puebla-Tlaxcala and Leon – represent 42 percent of Mexico’s urban population and 40 percent of all vehicles in the country.

Combined with increasing wildfires in the area, Mexico City, according to the World Air Quality Index, has been on par with Beijing, China, posting air quality scores of around 170. Scores between 151 and 200 are considered unhealthy.

Lake of Chapala
Credits: Jose Luis | Adobe Stock images

Water quality is also a concern. Lake Chapala, the country’s largest natural lake, has been deteriorating for years. Focus on Mexico, a guide to living and retiring in Lake Chapala communities, recently reported on the current state of the lake.

“A study prepared by the Mexican Water Technology Institute indicates that the water quality of the lake varies in different parts of the lake, with the most contaminated areas located near the mouth of the Lerma River and the area of the lake directly in front of Chapala, Ajijic, San Juan Cósala and Jocotepec. The contamination near the mouth of the Lerma River is primarily chemical, while the contamination found in the tourist areas is primarily organic. The fields of corn, sorghum, alfalfa and chickpea, located in La Barca, Jamay and Poncitlán, use pesticides and fertilizers that end up in the lake.”

Focus on Mexico reported that the newly elected Governor of Jalisco announced that state and federal governments will cooperate to contribute 3.4 billion pesos to clean up the Santiago River, which will rehabilitate 40 water treatment plants and build 14 new facilities.

Concern for the environment extends to the country’s beaches, to ensure that tourism, nearly 9 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, is not impacted. With over 40 million visitors a year, the majority at beaches, maintaining high environmental standards is critical.

Cancun beach
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This year, 54 beaches and three marinas received Blue Flag Program certification, which ranked Mexico 13th in the world for the number of certified beaches. Blue Flag, operated by the Foundation for Environmental Education, began certifying beaches around the world in 1987. Today, certification is highly sought, but only those beaches that meet high standards are certified. To receive certification, beaches must satisfy these four criteria: Water quality, environmental management, environmental education and safety.

Like all nations, Mexico has many climate change and environmental headwinds, but the country is working on meeting its goals. The National Resources Defense Council offered this view of the road ahead for Mexico:

“While Mexico has shown significant climate leadership, greater clarity is still needed on its strategy for reducing its emissions in key sectors, particularly electricity and transportation.”

The NRDC identified a number of areas that need improvement.

  • A strategy for reducing emissions in key sectors, particularly electricity and transportation.
  • A plan for transitioning away from fossil fuels by prioritizing and boosting electricity generation from renewable sources.
  • Optimize Mexico’s electricity transmission system to facilitate the integration of renewable sources.
  • Implement stronger energy efficiency standards.
  • Enacting and implementing vehicle and fuel standards.

“Mexico continues to solidify its global leadership role on climate,” the NRDC said, “but while important steps have been taken, Mexico will need to ensure strong actions are taken across all sectors and continually revisit the ambition of its targets.”

As with the achievement of the Paris Agreement goals in all countries, politics play a powerful role. Early indications that the country’s new administration may be taking a step back on climate change by favoring fossil fuel over renewable energy has been noted by Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis produced by three research organizations that have tracked climate action since 2009.

“The decision to favor fossil fuel generation over renewable energy now puts Mexico on a path that is even more inconsistent with the steps needed to achieve the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 C limit.”

A recent U.S. News and World Report article “A Turn Away from Mexico’s Environment?” also questioned the new administration’s commitment to the Paris Agreement.

“Four months since this new government began, and there’s still no clarity on what it intends to do about environmental issues,” says Enrique Provencio, an economics professor and associate of the Development Studies program at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. “[It’s] simply not a clear priority for this government.”

We hope it becomes a priority for the good of climate change and the environment in Mexico and for future generations.