December 01, 2010

In Mexico, Looking for a Leader on Climate Change

Strong leadership on climate change is hard to come by, especially at UN climate negotiations. The United States is too often undermined by the lack of domestic legislation on energy and climate change that would give the U.S. delegation the credibility it needs to persuade states such as China to act. China meanwhile is primarily concerned with sustaining strong economic growth in order to meet living standards for a growing population; so China is not willing to lead unless it gets a big carrot.

But that is not to say that there aren’t states that strongly push for an agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There are, they just don’t have much to lose with an agreement; indeed, they’re often developing countries that are really at risk due to climate change. In order for a state to secure the credibility it needs to rally other states to action, it has to be willing to make sacrifices in the short term; simply, it has to have something to lose. And that is what makes Mexico such an interesting state to watch during this week’s Cancun conference.

On Monday, The Washington Post reported that Mexico is seeking a leadership role in climate policy, in large part due to Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who apparently is a “climate wonk.” Unlike other developing countries, Mexico has more credibility which helps make it a potentially stronger leader on climate policy: Mexico is a major oil producer, ranked seventh in 2008 by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Mexico is also the 14th largest economy in the world and “contributes between 1.5 and 3 percent of global [greenhouse gas] emissions, according to The Post. With oil revenues generating approximately 40 percent of Mexico’s state expenditures, it has some skin the game if an international climate agreement means that Mexico’s oil revenues could shrink in the short term as countries make a transition to alternative fuels. But that doesn’t seem to be stopping Mexico.

Notably, Mexico is already making the transition by investing in alternative energy programs, such as wind farms. “In a joint venture with Spanish utility company Iberdrola, Mexico is building a massive wind farm in the south state of Oaxaca,” according to the Post. These investments complement Mexico’s efforts to curb its own greenhouse gas emissions, which it reports will, if it stays on track, “have reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 50 million tons” by 2012, “equal to the carbon produced by 45 days of domestic oil production.”

Mexico’s leadership position is also helped by the fact that it is hosting this year’s international climate negotiations. While expectations are incredibly low (compared to last year's Copenhagen conference), the stakes are high for the UN climate negotiations process: many are looking to Cancun to see what kind of future the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will have; whether states will abandon these UN negotiations all together in pursuit of bilateral or regional agreements. If that happens, Mexico could be stained by the collapse of the UNFCCC process in Cancun, which would not bode well for its international image – especially at a time when the country is struggling to rehabilitate its image in the face of an endless battle with drug traffickers and cartels that seemingly act with impunity. 

When Christine and I ran our simulation of the Cancun conference in Hamburg, Germany this fall, we found that Mexico was one of the strongest and most credible leaders among the developing countries bloc. Clearly the United States, the European Union and the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) were the most influential states, but Mexico was not far behind. Indeed, the Mexican delegation helped broker agreements that ultimately led to a successful outcome during our simulation. (You can read more about our experience in Hamburg here on World Politics Review [subscription required].)

Mexico probably won’t broker a game changing deal on climate change during the conference this week, nor is there any expectation that states will come close to a binding agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But perhaps Mexico's strong leadership on climate policy will compel states to take action on smaller, but very important policies: from funding for a climate mitigation and adaptation fund and agreements on technology transfers, to programs to end deforestation and restore forests. And if it can demonstrate that strong leadership during the UN climate negotiations is fruitful, maybe policymakers here at home will act on energy and climate change legislation to give the U.S. climate delegation the credibility it needs to lead on climate change abroad.