U.S. - Mexico presidential meeting highlights opportunity for climate cooperation across the border

Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña-Nieto visited U.S. President Barack Obama this week, just before taking office on December first. As Peña Nieto himself remarked, the meeting marked one of the rare occasions when the start of Mexican and American presidential terms nearly coincide. Their mutual enthusiasm to collaborate on a range of issues, including climate change, is an encouraging sign that, during the coming years of their concurrent administrations, we can hope to see increased coordination on our two countries’ efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost renewable energy. Indeed, both countries have much to gain from the other’s experiences and recent achievements.

Mexico, for example, passed a broad climate change law in April 2012, requiring the country to –among other things—reduce COâ‚‚ emissions by 30 percent below current levels by 2020, and by 50 percent below 2000 levels by 2050. Key details, such as how exactly those goals will be met and what mechanisms will implement the law, remain to be hammered out. But the fact that the law passed in Mexico’s lower house with a vote of 128-10 demonstrates the widespread recognition among lawmakers that climate change is a serious issue they must not ignore. Imagine a similar law passing in the U.S. House of Representatives –and by such a margin! The fact that climate change was an absent issue during the recent U.S. presidential campaigns until Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast is proof enough that, even at the highest levels, U.S. politicians are slower than their Mexican counterparts to recognize that climate change is priority global issue that needs to be tackled head on.

The U.S., on the other hand, made incredible progress this year on improving vehicle standards and reducing oil consumption. In August, Washington passed new clean car standards that, when coupled with the first round of standards passed in 2010, are the biggest action the U.S. has ever taken to cut oil dependency and carbon pollution. That first round, already in place and setting records, requires car fleets to have a fuel economy of 35.5 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2016. This latest round raises that fuel economy to 54.5 mpg by 2025, which will reduce COâ‚‚ pollution by the equivalent of 85 million cars by 2030. This is the kind of specific, results-oriented action that Mexico City should adopt to meet the goals of its climate change law.

Fortunately, this would also be a very doable action for Mexico. Draft legislation aligning vehicle efficiency standards with those of the U.S. already exists and is under review. This bill, called NOM 163, would achieve a new car fuel economy average of 35 mpg (14.9 kilometers per liter) by 2016. Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology estimates that, between 2013–2030, NOM 163 will reduce fuel consumption by 70 billion liters (nearly 18.5 billion gallons) and avoid 170 million tons of COâ‚‚ emissions. That is no small achievement, and it would go a long way towards helping Mexico fulfill its climate change goals. It would also save the Mexican people $39 million in fuel expenses and approximately $314 million in avoided health costs (due to a decrease in deaths and diseases from pollution emissions).

Despite the fact that some car companies are holding up the approval process of NOM 163, it remains a critical component of achieving real progress in the fight against climate change and has the added benefits of saving people money and protecting their health. When he takes office, President-elect Peña Nieto should make this measure – and similar ones dealing with emissions and fuel quality – a top priority for his administration.

President Obama and incoming President Peña Nieto will have many tough issues to tackle together during their terms, from immigration to drug traffic and violence. Yet as Mr. Peña Nieto has noted, it would be a “mistake to limit [the] bilateral relationship to drugs and security concerns.” Taking on climate change together, by pushing for cleaner and more efficient vehicles, should be a no-brainer for an enhanced bilateral agenda. Both countries are already taking steps in the right direction, though they’re using different –and complementary— approaches. While Mexico is taking a wide-angle perspective of climate change policy, the U.S. has so far focused on specific goals for a particular industry. These two approaches must now be bridged. At the start of their new terms, Mr. Peña Nieto and President Obama have a unique opportunity to forge new bonds and initiatives to ramp up collaboration on securing a clean energy and low carbon future for our two countries.

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