Apr 16th 2009 | MEXICO CITY
Felipe Calderón wants to talk to Barack Obama about drugs—and windmills
ASK anyone who has read a newspaper in the past few months what is the greatest threat faced by Mexico, and the answer will inevitably be the drug gangs whose violence resulted in over 6,000 deaths last year and is the main reason Barack Obama came to visit this week. Yet even though Felipe Calderón, the country’s president, has staked his job on his crackdown against the traffickers, he has a different answer to this question: global warming. “Climate change is the most important challenge that human beings are facing in this century,” he said on a recent visit to London.
That might seem odd coming from the conservative leader of an oil-exporting developing country. But Mr Calderón has chosen to make the fight to reduce carbon emissions one of the hallmarks of his presidency, at least rhetorically. He wants Mexicans to commit to cutting their own emissions by half by 2050. He has urged the setting up of a global “Green Fund,” which would receive contributions from all but the poorest countries in the world to finance environmentally friendly projects. Mr Obama praised his suggestion of a North American cap-and-trade scheme.
Mr Calderón’s officials say his enthusiasm is motivated by pure utilitarian maths: Mexico is both one of the countries most vulnerable to global warming and one rich in renewable energy resources. It has been hit by extreme weather several times during his term: in 2007, a devastating flood put 80% of the southern state of Tabasco under water and caused some $5 billion in damage, while farming in the north has been hurt by a lengthy drought. Mexico lies in the path of hurricanes both from the Atlantic and Pacific which many scientists believe are becoming stronger as a result of rising sea temperatures. Rising sea levels from melting polar ice caps threaten nearly half of the country’s eastern seaboard.
Since Mexico produces just 1.5% of the world’s emissions, it will be affected by climate change regardless of what it does at home. But greens argue that it must practice what it preaches—especially if it wants to influence the debate on the issue in the United States. Moreover, officials see potential economic and diplomatic gains.
Mexico’s oil output is shrinking fast. But it has huge potential to produce renewable energy. Around 17% of its electricity now comes from hydro dams. Iberdrola, a Spanish utility, is building a giant wind farm at La Ventosa (“the windy place”), an area in the southern state of Oaxaca which features gusts strong enough to topple trucks. This will provide power to 200,000 people, and avoid the emission of 150,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year. The government is also in talks with Q-Cells, a German company, over setting up a factory to manufacture solar panels in an investment that could total up to $3.5 billion over five years. Mr Calderón is also seeking American investment in solar power in northern Mexico. According to a study by McKinsey, a management consultancy, the investment needed for Mexico to cut its emissions by a quarter from current levels by 2030 would see a net gain of 500,000 jobs.
Mr Calderón’s vocal advocacy of the issue also reflects some geopolitical opportunism. Although Mexico has the world’s 11th largest economy and population, it tends to punch below its weight in international affairs, largely because its close integration with the United States leads some to see it as an American satellite.
Taking the initiative on climate change might help Mr Calderón give Mexico a higher profile. Other large developing countries have been less willing to agree to cut their emissions, though Brazil may change its mind (see article). According to Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, a senior Mexican diplomat, Mexico’s stance on climate change “increases our capacity for political dialogue internationally” and helps the country act as a bridge between the developed and developing worlds.
But will Mr Calderón be able to achieve the 5% drop in emissions he has promised by the time he leaves office in 2012? ProÁrbol, a much-hyped reforestation scheme, is widely considered a failure: of the 250m trees that were planted under the programme in 2007, officials admit that 40% have already died. Others put the figure much higher. The government’s climate-change plan makes no mention of how its lofty goals will be financed, a serious obstacle given the sharp slowdown in the Mexican economy. It would be more credible if it was backed by a carbon tax or local cap-and-trade scheme so that renewable energy could compete with fossil fuels on price. But the president is a quietly determined man, as he has shown in his battle with the drug traffickers. It is too early to dismiss his green credentials as merely for show.