California-Mexico partnership on climate change: promise, possibility, and a whole lot of work to do

California Governor Jerry Brown and Mexican officials pose after signing climate pact. (Credit: Danae Azuara)

California Governor Jerry Brown and Mexican officials pose after signing climate pact. (Credit: Danae Azuara)

When California Governor Jerry Brown kicked off a three-day trade and investment mission to Mexico last week, he didn’t do it by meeting with the minister of finance (though that did come later in the trip).

Instead, Governor Brown presided over a marquee event where he signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Mexico’s federal Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources to cooperate on combating climate change – a key priority that complements a broader joint economic agenda very well.

The Governor, staff, high-level administration officials, and legislators on the California delegation had a packed agenda that covered not only climate change, but also trade, investment, education, energy and immigration.

As a participant in the large delegation, I attended official events focused on energy and climate that were both substantive and informative. Both sides spoke thoughtfully and enthusiastically about implementation of the MOU.

But it was the meetings we had after the delegation had departed that gave me additional insight – and hope – that this agreement can truly signal the beginning of a new chapter in Mexico and California’s history, and one with global significance.

Still, it is fair to ask: In a world where MOUs are plentiful but action often seems in short supply, why is this agreement actually, as my colleague Nat Keohane argues, a sign that momentum is growing on climate action? I provide here some perspective on what we know about California’s and Mexico’s past and potential future paths on climate change.

Climate change optimism in Mexico

Mexico is currently the world’s 13th largest economy, though it’s projected to grow to the 5th largest by 2050. The country boasts a stable currency, saw modest growth in the middle class over the last decade, and is California’s biggest export market. Mexico’s foreign minister, José Antonio Meade Kuribreña, had no shortage of such statistics at hand when he explained to a group of business delegates in Sacramento why Mexico is such a good place to invest and build partnerships.

But Mexico is also a good place to invest in working to combat climate change. The current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has inherited a legacy on climate change leadership, through high-profile international emissions-reduction targets and a sweeping domestic climate change law that passed just before he took office. It is also a country poised for big changes, in no small part because its congress just approved a national energy reform, with potentially enormous implications for its energy future and emissions trajectory.

Regardless of whether Mexico’s climate change law passed on Peña Nieto’s watch, it is his to interpret, to implement, and potentially to capitalize on immensely. Ratcheting down Mexico’s national emissions toward the 2020 target of 30% below business as usual can be achieved by implementing smart energy and economic development policy that also drives the growth of a sustainable, low-carbon economy. There is enormous opportunity in Mexico to achieve significant, economy-wide emissions reductions (many at low cost) to meet the country’s ambitious mitigation goals and to stimulate green investment and economic growth, particularly in the energy sector.

California-Mexico climate partnership opportunities on display

Given that opportunity, EDF staff met last week in Mexico City with policymakers, NGOs, think tanks and other experts to understand how this MOU could help propel Mexico and California forward, and serve as an important impetus for even broader ambitious action.

What we heard repeatedly, especially from those close to the California-Mexico climate agreement, was optimism and a multitude of perspectives on ripe opportunities to work together.

The MOU itself outlines cooperative work on policy and technical tools, such as putting a price on carbon (the price being a key ingredient to drive investment in low-carbon technologies and increased efficiency); potential harmonization of measurement, monitoring, and tracking of greenhouse gas emissions; and promoting the development of renewable energy (an area where California has enormous expertise and Mexico a huge untapped potential).

California’s bet on win-wins for the environment and the economy is paying dividends, with a state economy back on track after weathering a recession and implementing the second largest cap-and-trade program in the world. And California sees the lion’s share of green investments in the country, with green job growth outpacing all other sectors ten-fold.

Mexico has the opportunity to strengthen its investment in a green economy and benefit the health of its citizens and the planet, while showing itself as a shining example of global vision and leadership. And in California, it has found the ideal partner to help make it happen.

Could the energy on both sides fizzle? Could Mexico’s President decide to walk away from Mexico’s climate leadership?

Sure, it’s possible – but it’s hard to make a case for doing so. The very same strategies reduce emissions – improvements in technology, efficiency, increasing green investment, and making smart decisions on fuels, transportation, and infrastructure – also provide short- and long-term economic gains for Mexico, and ultimately, could do so for the entire region.

Governor Brown spoke passionately last week about the reality and the urgency of climate change, and both governments reflected a sincere desire to do something real to make a difference together. For my part, I was convinced – now it’s time to get down to work.

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