Mexico ready to take on regional responsibility on climate change

Mexico has a huge role to play in regional and global efforts to tackle carbon emissions and, after a major shake-up of its energy sector in recent years, seems to be realising both its responsibility and its potential.

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Mexico is ready to become a major player in global efforts to combat climate change, President Enrique Peña Nieto has said. Speaking at an event at the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week in the UAE, Peña Nieto claimed that “Mexico is committed to the environment, we want to go down the road of less pollution, we want to adopt renewable energy, we are convinced that it is possible to secure a new climate regime without disrupting economic and social development”.

He also emphasised that Mexico is starting to assume its “global responsibility” in facing up to the energy and climate challenges of the future, and that the Central American giant is a good example of the leadership that needs to be shown in the aftermath of the historic climate change agreement reached at the Paris Summit at the end of 2015. The summit saw unprecedented levels of unity and leadership among the world’s national governments that led to an ambitious deal to restrict global temperature rises to below 2°C, and as close as possible to 1.5°C.

As the second largest economy in Latin America, and with a growing population that recently passed 125 million citizens, Mexico’s efforts to curb carbon emissions by switching over to renewable energy sources will play a significant part in determining whether worldwide efforts to contain global warming are successful. It is also increasingly being looked to as a potential leader on climate change matters among Latin American countries, and from the so-called Global South.

In 2012, Mexico passed a General Law on Climate Change committing itself to a 50% emissions cut from 2000 levels by 2050. It was one of the first countries in the world to pass such a law, and the first among so-called developing countries. It was also the first nation from this group to submit its emissions pledges (INDCs) ahead of the COP21 summit last year, promising a 25% cut between now and 2030. Above all else, Mexico itself stands to lose badly from runaway climate change, with a population highly vulnerable to extreme weather events such as storms and drought, as well as heatwaves.

It is also undergoing a major transformation in its energy system, after a recent series of laws and constitutional amendments in an attempt to shake up the country’s energy market and encourage more private investment, especially from abroad. While some say this could lead to a significant increase in oil and gas development, it is also hoped that the reforms will help Mexico to boost its renewable energy capacity from its current share of 21% of total electricity generation, to 35% by 2024 and 50% by 2040.

Mexican authorities insist that this goal is ambitious, but absolutely feasible. After all, the country enjoys some of the most favourable conditions for wind and solar power in the world, but until recently has been slow to make the most of these opportunities. In 2014, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, 78% of the country’s installed capacity still came from fossil fuels, while a further 15% came from hydropower, leaving just 7% from non-hydro renewables such as solar and wind, as well as some from nuclear.

mexico pena nieto don alejo solar plant el economista
Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto inaugurates the Don Alejo solar plant, which when fully complete will be one of the largest of its kind in Latin America. Photo via El Economista.

Yet despite starting from a comparatively low level, Mexico has been building up a reputation as one of the hottest renewable energy markets in the world over the last couple of years. One sign of this came just before Peña Nieto flew out to Abu Dhabi, as he opened the first completed phase of a major solar complex in Estado de México state. The Don Alejo plant now generates just 21MW of solar power, but upon its completion within the next three years it is projected to provide up to 400MW of clean electricity, placing it high among the ranks of Latin America’s largest solar plants.

If anything, though, it has been wind power that has been leading the way so far. Mexico’s wind sector is taking off at the moment, with initial estimates of a 30% growth rate through 2015, projections that installed wind capacity will treble or even quadruple over the next four years, and the expectation that new wind turbines will contribute close to half of the new renewable energy capacity being brought online across the country in the coming years. The cost of generating electricity from wind power has already fallen to similar levels to that coming from natural gas powered plants, and is expected to continue falling from here on in.

The next main indicator of the extent of Mexico’s renewables push will come in March, when the first proper electricity auction since the energy sector reforms will be held. If this and subsequent auctions encourage yet more renewable energy projects than those already planned, then Mexico may well be able to say that its actions are matching up to its words on playing its part in global efforts at tackling climate change.