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Mexico slow to shift climate gear, but some cities speed ahead

by Christine Murray | @chrissiemurray | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 21 May 2021 12:00 GMT

Gabriel Hernandez, a supervisor at the Mexico City government's bio-diesel plant, explains the process of producing the fuel. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Christine Murray

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Two of Mexico's largest urban areas are pushing on with plans to become carbon-neutral but the federal government has been criticized for unambitious climate action

* Mexico City and Guadalajara aim for carbon-neutrality by 2050

* Industrial powerhouse Monterrey lacks a climate action plan

* Federal government criticized for weak Paris Agreement targets

By Christine Murray

MEXICO CITY, May 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On a sunny morning at Mexico City's main wholesale market, traders in aprons rushed metal handcarts of fresh produce between the stores distributing more than a third of the country's fruit and vegetables.

This sprawling food supply hub is also key to the capital's strategy to become carbon-neutral, as the designated site for a new biodiesel plant, a bio-digester to produce gas from waste, and one of the world's largest urban solar power projects.

"We can't be using fossil fuels," said banana merchant Juan Manuel Portillo, 56, in his office in the Central de Abasto market. "We need to change people's way of thinking."

Portillo already put his own solar panels on the roof of the market to save money and cut climate-heating emissions, but said he doesn't mind moving them to his farm to make way for the government project if market traders benefit.

"It's something good so we don't generate more pollution," he added.

Mexico City's climate plan, announced in February, is at odds with the national government's backing for fossil fuels and failure to boost its emissions reduction goals for this decade.

Guadalajara, the country's third-largest city, also has an internationally recognized climate action plan with a 2050 target to become carbon-neutral, announced last December.

Both cities "now have the highest level of ambition, showing it's possible to do it at a local level despite complexities at the federal level", said Cynthia Menendez, head of sustainable cities for green group WWF Mexico.

Yet others are lagging behind, with industrial hub Monterrey - the second-biggest metropolis with 5.3 million residents - making little progress so far, activists said.

"The lack of vision and of an integral climate policy has done (Monterrey) a lot of damage," said Menendez, whose organization works with all three cities.

Around the world, cities are major contributors to climate change and some are at the forefront of the push to slow it.

Mexico City and Guadalajara's climate plans both acknowledge that current actions alone are not enough to meet their carbon-neutrality goals. They include measures to boost low-emission public transport, wastewater treatment and renewable energy.

But Monterrey has no equivalent strategy, with experts largely blaming a lack of political will in the northeastern state of Nuevo Leon where it is located.

Nuevo Leon's Sustainable Development Department said it had taken multiple steps to mitigate climate change and laid the foundations for the next government to comply with climate change laws when it takes over later this year.

A 2040 metropolitan plan - which includes measures to tackle climate change - will be put out for consultation in June, the department added.

Juan Manuel Portillo, a banana merchant at Mexico City's Central de Abasto market, poses for a photograph in his office. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Christine Murray

POLITICAL BOUNDARIES

The climate program in Mexico City - one of the world's largest capitals - was devised around a carbon budget and includes concrete measures such as having 100 brigades to stop water leaks and adding 30 new metro trains.

To reach carbon-neutrality by mid-century, the city must slash emissions 32% from 2016 levels by 2024. That will require large-scale international financing and technology transfer, it said, noting it will otherwise manage a cut of just 10%.

The plan also only covers the core city of 9 million residents - less than half those in the metropolitan area - making working with neighboring Mexico State key.

"Air quality, emissions and biodiversity don't respect political boundaries," said Leticia Gutierrez, who coordinates environmental policy for the city's government.

That is less of a problem for Guadalajara, which has a metro area planning body and agreed its climate strategy between its municipalities and the Jalisco state government.

"It's not easy - no plan of any kind that requires regional coordination is simple," said Mario Silva, who runs the Planning and Management Institute for Development of the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area (IMEPLAN).

"It worries me not to see this same commitment elsewhere."

Under the most ambitious scenario for Guadalajara, by 2050 fewer than 1% of trips will be made using cars and most will be on public transport, he added.

In a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2018, 80% of Mexican respondents called climate change a major threat, putting them among the world's most concerned.

Mexico is considered highly vulnerable to the effects of global warming, from droughts and floods to falling crop yields.

Yet much more scientific work is needed to understand the shifts already happening, said Francisco Estrada, director of the National Autonomous University of Mexico's climate change research program.

"The truth is there's really still very little information," he said.

Merchants pack guavas into boxes at Mexico City's Central de Abasto wholesale market. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Christine Murray

SUPPORT FOR OIL

All three of Mexico's biggest cities also face challenges related to federal energy policy.

The Tula power plant north of Mexico City, mainly fired by fuel oil, has been linked to poor air quality, for example, while the Cadereyta oil refinery outside Monterrey sends plumes of pollutants into the air.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's government has prioritized dirtier power produced by state utilities over promoting private-sector renewables, and is devoting billions to building a new oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco.

Mexico's federal environment ministry said it was committed to becoming carbon-neutral and producing 50% of electricity from clean sources by 2050.

Analysts have criticized Mexico for not setting stronger near-term goals to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement.

It last year repeated an earlier pledge to reduce its emissions 22% below a business-as-usual scenario by 2030 and up to 36% with international support.

The environment ministry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the government's targets were in line with its abilities and needs as a developing country.

It had taken action in areas such as new plans for electric transport and reusing waste products, it noted.

Juan Manuel Portillo, a banana merchant at Mexico City's Central de Abasto market, poses for a photograph by the solar panels he installed on the roof of his business. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Christine Murray

'FRUSTRATING'

Yet, in economic powerhouse Monterrey, situated a few hours' drive from Texas, industries like cement and steel are a crucial part of the city's identity.

That means local politicians are slow to take up environmental issues, despite having expertise in universities and business, climate activists said.

"It's really frustrating for those of us here trying to get things moving," said Adrian Lozano, who co-founded nonprofit Sociedad Sostenible in Monterrey.

"There are really, really capable people - the problem is the issue doesn't get any traction."

To spur action from the bottom up, WWF has created climate alliances in Mexico's largest cities, encouraging the private sector and civil society groups to participate, Menendez said.

The cities are so connected to the rest of the country that they all need to pull their weight, said UNAM's Estrada.

"If it goes badly in cities, it's going to go badly for all of us," he added.

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(Reporting by Christine Murray; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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