How Mexico’s reforms open new doors for reaching clean energy and climate goals

(This post originally appeared on Foreign Policy Blogs on Feb. 24)

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With a new climate change law and President Enrique Peña Nieto's overhaul of federal oil and electricity monopolies, Mexico now has important opportunities to meet renewable energy and emissions reduction goals and grow its economy. Credit: Edgar Alberto Domínguez Cataño

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s major policy reform proposals, on everything from new taxes on soda pop to amending the 70-year constitutional prohibition on foreign investment in Mexico’s petroleum sector, have swept through that nation’s congress with breathtaking speed.

The reform agenda did not come as a surprise to anyone paying attention. Peña Nieto had campaigned on a platform of increasing economic growth and jobs through major (and controversial) reforms. The energy reform restructures and opens up Mexico’s federal energy monopolies to foreign investment — a major goal being to boost the country’s oil and gas production.

But in all the discussion of shifting the global energy map, a critical potential is being overlooked: The overhaul of Mexico’s federal oil and electricity monopolies also breathes new life into prospects for making the energy sector cleaner and opening the door to green growth in the long run.

Mexico now has important opportunities to meet renewable energy and emissions reduction goals and grow its economy.

Energy and climate goals

Mexico’s new climate change law, which I’ve written about previously, sets voluntary national targets to reduce Mexico’s total emissions to half of 2000 levels by 2050 and requires Mexico to get over a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2024.

At present, Mexico’s energy sector is responsible for roughly 65 percent of its national greenhouse gas emissions and renewables make up a small fraction of electricity production. Over the last decade, multiple independent analyses have shown certain measures in the energy sector could save or even make Mexico money while keeping millions of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere.

So, if Mexico’s energy sector could make money while modernizing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (seemingly a win-win), what’s the hold up? Some of the most significant barriers have been a shortage of new capital to invest in modernization, efficiency, and long-term upgrades, as well as old-school inertia and institutional resistance to doing things differently.

But much of that old system, without a doubt, is changing now.

Moving toward a greener future

The latest reforms and the 2012 climate change law lay the groundwork for the country’s transition from relying on an aging infrastructure, old technologies and heavy fossil fuel dependence to a green growth future.

1. Emissions reduction targets

Mexico has committed to reducing its emissions 30 percent below business-as-usual levels by 2020 and 50 percent below 2000 levels by 2050. While voluntary, the targets it set at the U.N. climate negotiations in 2009 and reiterated in its climate law are a serious commitment on an international stage, and Mexico’s high-profile leadership on climate change should not be taken lightly. Experts from Mexico’s environment ministry and National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change based these targets on extensive analysis — and they were put on the table precisely because they can be achieved with the right incentives.

2. National emissions registry and green light on emissions trading

Mexico’s climate change law created the national emissions registry as part of its National Climate Change System; polluting industries’ reporting is mandatory, standardized and public. Addressing emissions across an entire national economy through the integrated measurement, reporting, accounting and transparency required by the national registry helps establish the building blocks for emissions trading. (The law also explicitly authorized, but did not require, the development of a voluntary emissions trading system.)

3. Price on carbon in fossil fuels

Fiscal reforms by the Peña Nieto administration include a tax on carbon in fossil fuel products, which aims to reduce Mexico’s emissions by seven million tons annually, and applies to everything, from diesel, to coal, to propane. The amount of the tax is based on the carbon content and linked to global market prices for carbon tons.

Built in to the tax legislation is eligibility for companies to pay the carbon tax through carbon offsets projects of an equivalent number of tons.

4. Pilot trading of carbon credits

The passage of the new carbon tax coincided with the announcement of a new offset trading platform on the Mexican stock exchange where credits for carbon emissions reductions (in tons) can be purchased either for the voluntary market, or in lieu of paying the carbon tax for those tons. This would create, in essence, a mini-compliance market for carbon credits.

It’s unclear what the scale and rules around offsets under the tax law will be, but the platform will mean developing key precursors to a future emissions-trading system — accountability, transparency, tracking of credits and transactions.

While Mexico may be tip-toeing into the emissions-trading-system arena, analysis by Environmental Defense Fund shows developing a full-scale emissions-trading system would be profitable and effective for meeting the country’s greenhouse gas emissions targets. Legally binding targets would be a necessary step in getting there.

5. New opportunities for capital, technology, and transparency

Most of Mexico’s energy infrastructure to meet demand beyond 2020 is yet to be built and it is widely acknowledged that the potential for renewable energy in Mexico vastly outweighs the current development. Opening Mexico’s major energy producing sectors to private investment provides capital, pressure to reduce waste and increase transparency to attract investment, and — particularly in the electricity sector — opens the field to a wide array of clean energy players who previously could not break in to Mexico.

Key pieces of the policy outlined have been driven by different goals and approaches, and of course, spanned a presidential election. But they do provide essential ingredients for a cohesive climate and energy policy and an effective mechanism to get to Mexico’s climate and development goals, and the time is ripe to put them together.

The Peña Nieto administration has already issued its climate change strategy (see my analysis from last June), and a roadmap for implementing climate policy between now and 2018 — just approved by its high-level commission — is due to be released this spring. Legislation to implement the Peña Nieto reforms is being crafted now.

Mexico will face the challenge of balancing the much-hyped economic potential of tapping its fossil fuel reserves with the climate change leadership it has established over the last decade. But as the world aspires to transition toward low-carbon economies that are no longer dependent on the fossil fuel reserves so keenly eyed in Mexico, there is significantly underappreciated opportunity here — to reduce the environmental impact of old, dirty sources of energy, while taking the long view and building a sustainable future economy.

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