While the U.S. media ceaselessly updates the American public on the gory results of the Mexican drug war, they rarely take time to report on a subject that could allow Mexico to become a model for developing countries worldwide: climate-change mitigation. Mexican President Felipe Calderón has referred to global warming as “one of the biggest threats to humanity,” while his environment minister, Juan Rafael Elvira, has declared that Mexico is committing itself to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 million metric tons a year between now and 2012, and by 50 percent below 2002 levels by 2050. Thus far, they have put real action behind their words. As Mexico continues to implement domestic-emission reductions programs, including its low-carbon bus rapid transit (BRT) and fluorescent-for-incandescent light bulb swap programs, other nations might take notice and follow suit.

While Mexico does not have the funds to support a wide range of green projects independently, there are numerous international programs designed to help poor countries develop in an environmentally-friendly way. Mexico has participated in many of these efforts. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has assisted in the creation of Mexico’s BRT system, the World Bank has provided Mexico with loans to boost its energy efficiency capabilities, and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol has subsidized a number of other emissions-reducing projects, including a new fluorescent light bulb project. Mexico’s ability to take action against climate change is clearly not due to its own ability to fund these efforts, but to its willingness to apply for external financing.

The most widely recognized success of Mexico’s environmental initiatives lies in Mexico City’s BRT system, known as Metrobús. This is one of several BRTs that have been established across the globe in the past few years, propelled by the simple idea of combining the efficiency of a subway station with the affordability of a bus network.

Passengers use cards similar to subway passes to enter the enclosed bus waiting area, which eliminates the time ordinarily spent waiting to pay on board. Metrobús has exclusive usage of the left-hand lanes along its route, allowing the BRT to be a much faster mode of transportation than driving. In comparison to subways, BRTs are extremely economical: subways cost over 30 times as much per mile to construct than a BRT system, and three times as much to maintain. For a relatively poor country like Mexico, a subway system would be too expensive to implement even with foreign funds. BRTs are therefore the most financially feasible way of pulling carbon-emitting drivers out of their cars and onto buses. In the past four years, Metrobús has been responsible for a six percent shift from private vehicles to public transportation. The 450,000 passengers who ride the BRT in Mexico City each day prevent an estimated 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere each year, while increasing mobility along Insurgents’ Avenue, the capital’s main street, by 50 percent and reducing accidents by 30 percent.

The convenience of Metrobús has contributed to its subsequent expansion since its 2005 inauguration. Initially, it only ran North-South through the city, covering 20 kilometers of land, and carried 230,000 passengers. However, after its first year, Metrobús became popular enough for Marcelo Ebrard to win Mexico City’s mayoral election, beating the incumbent, after campaigning on a platform of expanding Metrobús’ operations from one to ten lines. In December 2008, he initiated the second BRT corridor within Mexico City, “Eje 4 Xola,” which serves Mexico City’s eastern district of Iztapalapa. With this new addition, Metrobús now runs over 50 kilometers in length, and it is expected to continue to expand beyond its current two lines.

Metrobús’ success in Mexico City led to the opening of Macrobús in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, in March 2009. This new system is the first BRT to be officially approved by the United Nations (UN) in Mexico, and is the second in Latin America, after Brazil’s TransMilenio. UN registration through the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is crucial for funding. The Kyoto Protocol mandates that its signatories meet certain emissions targets, which they can achieve through three mechanisms: emissions trading, the CDM, and Joint Implementation. The CDM allows industrialized countries to meet their targets by implementing and funding emissions reduction projects in developing countries, either in addition to or instead of reducing emissions domestically. Each project acquires a certain number of certified emission reduction (CER) credits, which are each equivalent to one ton of carbon dioxide and can be sold for around US$18 per CER. This is beneficial to both industrialized and developing countries: the former receives less expensive CERs than it would by reducing emissions in its own country, and the latter receives funding to speed up its own development. Mexico has taken advantage of this new potential source for funding: 25 percent of Latin America’s CDM projects are to be found in Mexico, the most in the region after Brazil.

Once Macrobús’ registration process with the UN is complete, Guadalajara believes that it will receive approximately US$3.6 million through CERs. The government has promised that the money earned from the BRT will go towards research and monitoring equipment to make the bus system more environmentally-friendly. Macrobús is currently 16 kilometers in length and serves 130,000 passengers, but two more corridors will expand the BRT to 81 kilometers by 2012. Guadalajaran officials are hoping that Macrobús will inspire other BRTs within Latin America when the city hosts the Pan-American Games in 2011, thus encouraging climate change mitigation throughout the region.

Opposition to Macrobús
Guadalajara’s mayor, Emilio González Márquez, has encountered some internal resistance to the Macrobús plan. Some within the region believe that the first bus line was planned poorly, and instead believe it would be more effective to expand the Tren Ligero, which runs on tracks above and below ground. The mayor has said that this is not financially feasible, since the Tren Ligero costs between US$20 million and US$40 million per kilometer to construct, depending on whether it is above or below ground. This would be considerably more expensive than the BRT.

Some are worried that the Macrobús will further congest Guadalajara’s already busy roads. However, if implemented successfully, the BRT should actually pull drivers off the roads and decrease traffic. Others are more concerned with the costs of the new bus: Mexico’s Federation of University Students is lodging a legal complaint against Macrobús for forcing students to pay a fee to receive a discount on their bus rides, which they claim is unconstitutional.

Protests over these and other issues are impeding the construction of the last two lines. The government should consider the interests and demands of its residents, and acquiesce to protesters’ simpler requests (like more accessible discounted rates for students), while staying committed to carrying through with the rest of the Macrobús project.

Innovations in transportation systems could make a huge difference to the environment. Transport currently accounts for 18 percent of Mexico’s greenhouse gas emissions, which increased 27 percent between 1990 and 2005. Given that three quarters of Mexico’s population lives in urban areas, energy-saving BRTs could be a major force in reducing the country’s carbon footprint. The government has already promised to phase out all of its buses that are over 10 years old by 2012, which would be considered a definite step in the right direction.

Lighting up Mexico
Mexico’s newest climate change eradication scheme is a fluorescent-for-incandescent light bulb swap. Starting in October, the company Cool NRG International will set up stations where residents can bring up to four incandescent light bulbs and exchange them for four compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) of similar wattage. Over its two to three year period, this swap is expected to provide 30 million CFLs to households across Mexico, with a focus on low-income families. The first million will be distributed in October and November of this year.

Although this program is voluntary, Mexicans have a definite incentive to make the switch: CFLs require up to 80 percent less energy and last up to 10 times longer than incandescent light bulbs. In the long term, this will save residents huge amounts of money, as well as reduce wasteful energy usage. Household lighting constitutes 10 percent of all electricity generated in Mexico, therefore making it more efficient has the potential to eradicate enormous amounts of excess energy use. Due to increasing demand, Mexican authorities now estimates that they will have to spend US$800,000 per megawatt capacity on new electricity generation infrastructure over the next decade, so energy efficiency is pivotal.

The CFL project will be beneficial to everyone involved: less greenhouse gases will be released into the atmosphere, Mexican households will save money on their electricity bills, the government will save money on electricity subsidies for low-income households, and there will be less overall pressure on energy infrastructure. The government now subsidizes 54 percent of the electricity bill for poorer households, so the reduction of electricity usage would save the country a significant portion of the budget. The UN estimates that switching one million light bulbs from incandescent to fluorescent would save Mexico US$12.2 billion a year, with US$5.6 million going to consumers and US$6.6 million to the government. Additionally, the lower pressure on energy infrastructure during peak load times—when electricity usage is at a maximum—would allow for savings of approximately US$19.5 million.

The project is also designed to take the critical next step of training locals on energy efficiency so they can assist in the implementation of the project. This will provide jobs for Mexicans and create a new contingent of highly trained professionals within the country, since Cool NRG will be instructing locals in development, implementation, and management in both energy efficiency and the CDM. Program managers will also be responsible for educating the general public about the advantages of energy efficiency, both financial and environmental, so that consumers can understand that conserving energy will lower their expenses while mitigating the effects of climate change.

Wind Power
Not only is Mexico working towards greater efficiency in transport and electricity, it is also augmenting its renewable energy sector. About 17 percent of its electricity currently comes from hydro-electric dams, and Mexico is beginning to focus more on wind energy. After successfully building La Venta I in 1994 and La Venta II in 2005, the government is now building a La Venta III, a wind farm in Oaxaca that should be in use by November 2010. The Spanish company Iberdrola Renovables, which is building the wind farm, has signed a contract with the Mexican Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) that will provide energy to 200,000 people over the next 20 years. The World Bank provided La Venta III with US$50 million in an attempt to sufficiently subsidize the cost for wind power in order for it to be financially competitive. La Venta III will have an installed capacity of 100 megawatts, allowing it to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 150,000 metric tons a year, and is part of Oaxaca’s plan to increase production to 500 megawatts in wind capacity within the next few years.

Here Comes the Sun
Mexico is also attempting to harness another type of renewable energy: solar power. The German company Q-Cells is going to build a solar panel production complex in Mexicali, Mexico, in which it is expected to invest up to US$3.5 million over five years. Q-Cell president Leo van der Holst has claimed that this manufacturing plant would serve as the company’s main base in the Americas. Landing this investment would be an important achievement for Mexico, considering that Q-Cells is the largest solar cell maker in the world,.

Renewable energy is becoming even more essential for Mexico as its oil output has been on the decline. Encouraged by successes in the wind and solar sectors, President Calderón has said that Mexico aims to have renewable energy represent a quarter of its total energy by 2012.

Sensitive to Climate Change
Mexico’s decision to reduce its carbon footprint is shrewd; over the past few years, it has increasingly experienced global warming’s negative effects. In 2007, 80 percent of the southern state of Tabasco was flooded, costing Mexico US$5 billion. A recent drought also continues to plague farmers in the north. Mexico’s mountains and coastlines have become even more susceptible to hurricanes due to its deforestation and destruction of mangroves along the Mexican shoreline. Floods are threatening major river deltas, while rising sea levels could endanger almost half of Mexico’s eastern coast. Floods, droughts, and strengthening hurricanes are all symptoms of climate change. Calderón himself has stated, “Climate change will cost Mexico more than 6 percent of our gross domestic product, which is many times more than we are investing in the fight against climate change.”

International Action
While Mexico only contributes 1.5 percent to the world’s emissions production, its steps are still important internationally. Scientists almost uniformly believe that global emissions will need to be reduced between 25 and 40 percent below the 1990s levels by 2020 to stabilize climate change, meaning that countries will have to take serious action to reduce their greenhouse gas output. The increase in the number of countries that make climate change a priority would substantially increase the likelihood of the world avoiding the worst effects of global warming.

This is becoming even more important with December’s fast-approaching global climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, which could potentially serve as Kyoto’s successor. Although major economies have been holding climate conferences periodically throughout 2009, the participants have not been able to reach a compromise on sharing the emission reductions burden proportionately between rich and poor countries. In early July, the Major Economies Forum, a group of 17 countries that produces 80 percent of the world’s emissions, once again exposed the disparities between developed and developing nations. China and India refused to agree to emission targets, since industrialized countries were able to use dirty fossil fuels indiscriminately while they were developing, and they want the same freedom to grow inexpensively and efficiently. Calderón disagrees with both India’s and China’s stance. “Talking as a developing nation is difficult for me because fellow leaders in developing nations say that industrialized nations provoked the problem and they have enough money to fix it,” he said. “We need to change that point of view.”

To support poor countries that want to develop cleanly, Mexico has suggested a global “Green Fund” to finance environmentally-friendly projects. The G8 backed this idea at its July meeting, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown suggested that the developed world contribute US$100 billion a year in funds to encourage clean development. Some of the capital could come from tariffs on the airline and shipping industries, which alone could produce US$30 billion a year. This fund could help emission targets overcome one of their biggest obstacles by allowing clean development to be achieved inexpensively. Poor nations would no longer have any economic incentives to continue industrializing with dirty fuels, since the Green Fund would finance emissions-cutting projects for them.

As climate change becomes a more severe issue, Mexico’s attention to emissions reductions is serving as a model for both industrialized and developing nations across the globe. It still remains to be seen if Mexico will actually reach the targets to which it has pledged and whether or not its projects will be successful in the coming years, but its conscious effort to eradicate climate change is worth emulation. Some critics claim that Mexico’s actions are mainly for show, and point to a failed reforestation scheme, in which at least 40 percent of the replanted trees have ended up dying, to demonstrate that Mexico has previously fallen short of its stated goals. This type of criticism is counterproductive. As Calderón has observed, “The finger-pointing has gone on for more than a decade without humanity taking a single step forward in the fight against climate change.” It is time for governments across the globe to stop pointing fingers and start working on climate change in their own countries. Perhaps Mexico could serve as their example?

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Lily Fesler