The new president Claudia Sheinbaum is a climate activist. Can she save Mexico?

The new president Claudia Sheinbaum is a climate activist. Can she save Mexico?
The new president Claudia Sheinbaum is a climate activist. Can she save Mexico?

MEXICO CITY — She was an energy engineer, a quiet, determined Mexican academic who had worked in a major U.S. government laboratory and studied some of the most difficult problems of climate change.

Claudia Sheinbaum was an obvious choice when the United Nations’ prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change selected scientists in 2014 to write a landmark report warning that the world was heading for “irreversible” damage from greenhouse gases and calling for urgent action.

Sheinbaum’s contributions were “an added value for the team,” said Manfred Fischedick, a professor in Germany who worked on the report. “And – I want to emphasize this – she never came across as a politician.”

Now Sheinbaum is on the verge of becoming president of Mexico.

Her election gives new hope to environmentalists and diplomats who despaired as Mexico went from being a global leader on climate change to a laggard.

But Sheinbaum’s past is complicated. She is the protégé of outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, who put green energy projects on hold in favor of developing oil fields. In her most recent term as mayor of Mexico City, Sheinbaum loyally defended his policies – even as she introduced electric buses and covered the capital’s giant food market with solar panels.

“Like a political chameleon, she adapts to the situation she finds herself in,” said Antonio Mediavilla, an environmental scientist who has worked on her government’s projects. “But now she will be the boss.”

Which direction will it take? The answer will have implications far beyond Mexico’s borders. The country is the world’s eleventh-largest oil producer and the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Latin America. Much of these greenhouse gases come from energy – car exhaust, methane emissions from gas and oil infrastructure, climate-damaging gases from fossil fuel-fired power plants.

Sheinbaum, 62, has unveiled a $14 billion plan to generate new energy, focusing on wind, solar and hydroelectric power. “We need to accelerate the promotion of renewable energy,” she told business leaders during the campaign in April. Her program is an environmentalist’s wish list: more electric public transportation, greater energy efficiency, a program to get old, polluting cars and trucks off the streets.

“Ninety percent of the proposals in her program are things we need to do,” says Adrián Fernández, director of the Climate Initiative of Mexico, a nonprofit that worked with Sheinbaum on projects when she was mayor. But those plans are inconsistent with her promises to continue many of López Obrador’s energy policies, he says – such as strengthening the national oil and electricity companies.

“What will happen? That is the big question for the country,” he said.

Sheinbaum grew up in a scientific household

Sheinbaum comes from a family of scientists who are deeply committed to left-wing causes. As a student, she began working on environmental issues, designing more efficient wood stoves for indigenous women in rural areas. “It was quite difficult,” recalls Victor Alejandro Salcido, her doctoral supervisor – a project that involved computer modeling and questions of combustion, fluid mechanics and efficiency.

During her graduate work in the 1990s at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s network of laboratories—Sheinbaum looked at much larger systems, analyzing the energy use of some of Mexico’s biggest climate polluters, including the transportation, construction and steel sectors.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions in hard-to-decarbonize industries like steel production is one of the most difficult and data-intensive challenges in climate science. Sheinbaum excelled at it, earning a PhD in energy engineering from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Two decades later, she became one of the lead authors of the industry chapter in the UN body’s report.

Joyashree Roy, an economist who also worked on the 2014 report, said Sheinbaum was a patient listener who knew how to command a room. Roy recalled a meeting in South Korea where Sheinbaum walked up to the board and worked on an equation for the group.

“She was very knowledgeable.”

Roy was aware that the Mexican scientist was active in politics, but she never believed that she would one day become head of state. “Back then, none of us could have imagined that this could happen,” she says.

Sheinbaum got her first high-level government job in 2000. López Obrador, a longtime leftist, had been elected mayor of Mexico City and asked her to be his environment minister. But he also put her in charge of one of his most important projects, the construction of a “second floor” on the ring road around Mexico City. Many environmentalists were appalled, believing the new highway would only lead to more cars and more emissions.

But while she was overseeing construction, Sheinbaum introduced the Metrobús – a rapid transit corridor with efficient, diesel-powered buses. This system, which has grown to seven lines, saves around 70,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. After becoming mayor herself in 2018, Sheinbaum began converting the buses to electric power.

“She had to put her political loyalty to López Obrador first, even in situations where she probably didn’t agree,” Fernández said.

Now it will have the chance to determine its own policies. At least that is what the environmentalists hope.

“What we need first,” Fernández said, “is for López Obrador to go home and leave the president-elect alone.”

López Obrador’s influence on Sheinbaum

This may be more complicated than it sounds.

López Obrador is the founder of Mexico’s dominant Morena party, a charismatic populist who has increased spending on social programs for the poor. Sheinbaum, his hand-picked successor, rode his wave of success in a landslide victory.

While López Obrador has promised that he will resign if his Term of office ends in September, many Mexicans have doubts.

“It is in AMLO’s DNA to continue to be the center of power,” says Carlos Heredia, an economist who advised López Obrador during his tenure as mayor.

Under López Obrador, who comes from the Mexican oil state of Tabasco, environmental policy changed dramatically. For a long time he saw Pemex as a symbol of national sovereignty and believed that Mexico should be independent in energy matters.

He invested billions of dollars in new oil refineries and tried to reverse a sweeping 2013 energy reform that opened the state-dominated oil, gas and power sectors to private companies. The president could not muster the votes to repeal those laws, but he denied foreign companies permits to develop solar and wind power and gave a larger role to the national power utility, which typically burned dirtier fuels.

In 2022, Climate Action Tracker, an independent group that monitors countries’ climate action, downgraded Mexico’s policies to “critically inadequate” – its worst rating.

Sheinbaum has promised to maintain López Obrador’s policy of guaranteeing more than half of the energy market to state-owned companies, but she has also promised to establish “clear rules” for private investor participation.

“You have to see her as a woman of the left who firmly believes in state intervention, who believes in state-owned companies,” says Jesús Carrillo, economic director of the research group Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, known by its Spanish acronym IMCO.

When asked for comment, Sheinbaum’s campaign referred The Washington Post to Marina Robles, who served as Sheinbaum’s environmental secretary for the past few years.

Robles denied that there was a contradiction in Sheinbaum’s commitment to both state-owned energy companies and renewable energy.

“Claudia has always defended clean energy, but she has also defended our sovereignty and our country’s natural resources,” she said.

Mexico’s overloaded energy system

Sheinbaum will be limited not only by politics but also by economic factors.

Today, Mexico’s power grid relies on cheap natural gas from Texas to keep its electricity flowing. Pemex has become the world’s most indebted energy company. The company has failed to invest in capturing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from its infrastructure, according to Diego Rivera Rivota, a senior research fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

“We have a very challenging situation today,” he said.

One of López Obrador’s most important investments in renewable energy is Plan Sonora, a $1.6 billion solar megaproject. in northern Mexico by the state-owned electricity company. But that company has spent years saving on investments in transmission lines that could connect homes and businesses to solar or wind power plants. Without such a network, “we cannot use this electricity,” said Isabel Studer, director of the Mexican nonprofit group Global Sustainability.

Mexico’s economic growth is slowing and Sheinbaum has promised to reduce the budget deficit, which is currently six percent of GDP – the highest deficit in decades. Given these financial constraints, she must attract private investors to implement her ambitious plans for more renewable energy, analysts say. But she wants to limit their production to less than half of Mexico’s electricity production, following López Obrador’s example.

Investors may also be put off by a sweeping plan by the outgoing president to introduce direct elections of judges. Although the plan is not directly related to the environment, companies fear it could weaken judicial independence and undermine legal guarantees. The idea has unsettled financial markets and caused the Mexican peso to plummet in recent weeks.

“You have to offer security,” says Odón de Buen, former director of the National Commission for Efficient Energy Use. “If I want to invest $10 billion in something and recoup my investment in 30 years, but I know that the rules of the game could change in three years, then I’m not going to take the risk.”

Sheinbaum has shown political skill in attracting international money without tarnishing her nationalist reputation, say people who have worked with her. As mayor, she participated in several major energy and environmental projects with the U.S. Agency for International Development, but did not highlight the partnership.

But she also tried to harmonize her environmental program with her efforts for poorer parts of the city. For example, she built electric cable cars in the slums on the mountain slopes and had parks built in the poorer east of the capital.

“Environmental improvements must go hand in hand with social justice,” Robles said, describing Sheinbaum’s philosophy.

Even if Sheinbaum retains some of López Obrador’s policy views, many academics believe her six-year term will be different. “The environmental issue is not secondary to her,” says Alberto Rojas, who studied with her in an environmental leadership program at the College of Mexico. “It is her issue.”

Grandoni reported from Washington; Ríos reported from Monterrey.

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