As the world transitions away from fossil fuels and weens itself off emissions-heavy energy sources, one country is running against the current and right back into the arms of coal. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has bucked all convention as he tries to make good on his campaign trail promise to establish a norm of energy sovereignty for his country. Bringing down the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and curbing the extraction and combustion of dirty fuels – particularly coal – is paramount to the increasingly urgent missive of avoiding catastrophic climate change. In order to keep the globe’s temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial averages – the threshold set by scientists to stave off the very worst effects of climate change – we will need to cut oil use by 37% and gas use by 25% and cut out oil altogether by just 2030. Put simply, this decade will make all the difference in the future of our species.
This is why it’s particularly alarming that a sizeable economic and industrial force like Mexico has thrown caution and a fair amount of carbon dioxide to the wind and doubled down on its anachronistic dedication to ramping up its coal industry at the very time that most countries are attempting to phase out the particularly dirty fossil fuel.
“Instead of thinking of a transition from coal and fossil fuels, he’s thinking of using more coal and petroleum,” Adrián Fernández Bremauntz, director of climate change organization Iniciativa Climática de México, was quoted by the Guardian. “No other G20 country has such abnormal or retrograde energy policies as this government,” he added. “It’s not going to advance us toward our climate goals.”
The populist Mexican president has publicized his plans to purchase almost 2 million tons of thermal coal from small producers around the country. Making matters even more concerning, at the same time that López Obrador is bringing coal plants back online, he’s also downsizing clean energy initiatives.
These moves are just the latest part of a years-long campaign led by López Obrador to restore Mexico’s energy autonomy. Although his predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto enshrined certain energy overhauls into the constitution, such as allowing foreign investment in Mexican oil and welcoming competition with Mexican state-run oil and gas company Pemex for the first time in nearly a century, López Obrador has quietly found quasi-legal ways of pushing those players out.
As if to highlight the validity of the current Mexican administration’s energy sovereignty project, when Texas went dark last week amidst freezing temperatures and sweeping energy shortages, the state’s woes and blackouts spilled over into northern Mexico, as exports of natural gas over the southern border tapered off by 75 percent.
It’s more than understandable why many countries have the desire to shore up their own energy security and sovereignty, and indeed, Mexico is not the only country to fall back on coal to meet these needs. China has leaned heavily on coal during a year of economic and public health uncertainties and has even ramped up overseas production, even as President Xi Jinping makes more and more ambitious climate commitments. Even parts of publicly climate-conscious Canada have considered falling back on coal to revitalize the nation’s economy after last year’s record oil slump.
Clearly, we have some work to do if we have any hope of reaching our decarbonization goals. Keeping it in the ground not only requires cheaper and more efficient clean energy alternatives, but it also requires major incentives for making the transition and significant disincentives for failing to do so. The case of Mexico makes it clear that both the carrot and the stick need work. Energy security anxieties will only grow more prevalent as global weather disasters like last week’s Texas (and northern Mexico) freeze become more common and more frequent as weather patterns change. If global institutions and governments are serious about reducing emissions, then a system of incentives must be introduced to ensure such anxieties drive countries towards cleaner solutions.