Mexico introduces a carbon tracking system to monitor its greenhouse gas emissions

 Mexico's geography in the Press  Comments Off on Mexico introduces a carbon tracking system to monitor its greenhouse gas emissions
Apr 212011

A recent Scientific American article (15 March 2011) examines Mexico’s newly introduced system to track greenhouse gas emissions. The article, by Saqib Rahim, originally appeared in ClimateWire.

Systems to monitor emissions are essential if countries are to know whether or not they are meeting emissions targets. Mexico’s 2012 goal is to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 6% of their 2000 value. Mexico’s longer-term goal is a decrease of 50% by 2050. Achieving these goals will require massive investments in a range of industries and Mexico hopes that a transparent greenhouse gas accounting system will play an important role in attracting foreign funds.

The system was developed in partnership with Abt Associates, a US consultancy that has contracts with US AID and the US Environmental Protection Agency. Mexican officials insisted that the system must be Internet-based, easy to use, and capable of providing updated reports every few months. Their existing system is spreadsheet-based, but relies on databases that are not 100% compatible in terms of the information and measurements recorded.

The new system allows officials to categorize emissions data by economic sector and geographic region, down to the level of an individual firm or a single municipality. Indonesia has already expressed its interest in the system, and it is hoped that other countries will now follow Mexico’s lead and adopt a similar strategy for keeping track of their own greenhouse gas emissions.

Review of “Climate and Society in Colonial Mexico: A Study in Vulnerability” (Georgina Endfield)

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Apr 052011

Environmental historian Georgina Endfield has analyzed a wide variety of colonial archives to explore the complex relationships between climate and social and economic systems. Her book—Climate and Society in Colonial Mexico: A Study in Vulnerability—considers case studies in three distinct zones of Mexico:

  • the arid Conchos Basin of Chihuahua
  • the fertile Oaxaca Valley
  • the agricultural area centered on Guanajuato in the Bajío region

Endfield - Cover of Climate and Society in Colonial MexicoEndfield systematically unravels the connections between climatic vulnerability and the ways in which societies sought to mitigate the impacts of climate-related disasters, while striving for greater resilience against similar events in the future. Her book considers a range of disasters and impacts, from floods, droughts and storms to epidemics, food shortages, riots and rebellions.

The author captures her readers immediately as she describes how “28 June 1692 was a very wet day in Celaya, Guanajuato. Unusually heavy rains began falling in the afternoon and continued all through the evening.” This was the prelude to “terrible panic among all the inhabitants of the city”, and “could not have come at a worse time”, since two years of drought and crop blights had led to famines and epidemics.

Throughout the book’s seven chapters, Endfield writes in a direct manner. She avoids lengthy quotes in favor of presenting a carefully constructed argument, as she leads the reader in an exploration of the content and merits of the colonial sources. In the final chapter, she examines the broader context, relating climatic events in Mexico to events in Europe, and considering the possible role of ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation) events.

An extended table towards the end of the book provides a time line for the known environmental hazard events striking the three areas between 1690 and 1820. It shows, for example, that droughts were reported in Chihuahua in no fewer than 40 years of that 130-year time span.

Referencing throughout the book is meticulous, and repeated use is made easier by the provision of a detailed index.

I do have one tiny quibble. The use of accents in this book is quite inconsistent. Even for place names, some accents are missing, while others have migrated to the wrong letter. For example, Léon is often used for León.

This is a fascinating read. Apart from the many invaluable examples of climatic hazards and their demographic, social, economic and political impacts, Endfield has been hugely successful in demonstrating the tremendous value of Mexico’s rich colonial archives, archives which no doubt still hold many more secrets, which they will only give up in response to similarly painstaking research.

Studies of climate change are set to take center-stage in coming decades, and this historical account reminds us all that climate hazards are far from a rare or a novel occurrence.

In short, this is a highly recommendable book.

Details (click for

Climate and Society in Colonial Mexico: A Study in Vulnerability (Blackwell, 2008) by Georgina H. Endfield; 235 pages.

Mexico’s diverse climates and climatic vulnerability are the subject of chapter 4 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Water availability, rivers, aquifers, water issues and hazards are analyzed in chapters 6 and 7. Buy your copy today!

Can Mexico’s Environmental Agency protect Mexico’s coastline?

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Mar 242011

A case study of the Cabo Cortés tourism megaproject in Baja California Sur

Baja California Sur MapThe Cabo Cortés megaproject is planned for the area near Cabo Pulmo on the eastern side of the Baja California Peninsula. Cabo Pulmo, a village of about 120 people, is about an hour north of San José del Cabo, and on the edge of the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.The area is a semi-arid area, where water provision is a serious challenge.

The megaproject is centered on an extensive belt of mature sand dunes which fringe the coast immediately north of Cabo Pulmo.

The megaproject has been in the planning stages for several years, but Mexico’s federal Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat (Semarnat) recently gave Spanish firm Hansa Urbana the green light to begin construction. The controversial plans for Cabo Cortés involve building on the virgin sand dunes, and will undoubtedly have adverse impacts on the small village of Cabo Pulmo and the ecologically-sensitive Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.

The Semarnat decision provoked the immediate ire of Greenpeace and other environmental campaigners, as well as local residents who fear being displaced from the small village of Cabo Pulmo by a proposed marina.

The value of the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park

Jacques Costeau, the famous ocean explorer, once described the Sea of Cortés as being the “aquarium of the world.” This area of the Sea has been protected since 1995 and is now designated a National Marine Park. It was declared a “Natural Patrimony of Mankind” by UNESCO in 2005. The protected area, ideal for diving, kayaking and snorkeling, covers 71 sq. km of ocean with its highly complex marine ecosystem. Dive sites include underwater caves and shipwrecks.

The biological productivity of the Marine Park is amazing. Since the National Marine Park was established, the number and size of fish inside the park boundaries have increased rapidly. Studies show that the number of fish has more than quadrupled since 1995, owing to the exceptional productivity of the offshore reef area. The park is an outstanding example of the success of environmental protection efforts.

Cabo Pulmo is on the Tropic of Cancer, about as far north as coral usually grows. The water temperatures vary though the year from about 20 to 30 degrees C (68 to 86 degrees F). The seven fingers of coral off Cabo Pulmo comprise the most northerly living reef in the eastern Pacific. The 25,000-year-old reef is the refuge for more than 220 kinds of fish, including numerous colorful tropical species. Divers and snorkelers regularly report seeing cabrila, grouper, jacks, dorado, wahoo, sergeant majors, angelfish, putterfish and grunts, some of them in large schools.

The tourism megaproject

The project involves an area of 1,248 hectares (3,000 acres). Swathes of land will be cleared for two 18-hole golf courses. Water provision will require the extraction of 4.5 million cubic meters of groundwater a year from the Santiago aquifer, and the construction of 17 kilometers of aqueducts. The planned marina has 490 berths. When complete, the megaproject will offer more than 27,000 tourist rooms, almost as many as Cancún has today, and almost three times as many as currently in nearby Los Cabos. It is estimated that Cabo Cortés will generate 39,000 metric tons of solid wastes a year (about 2 kg/person/day).

Cover of Greenpeace's position paper on Cabo Cortés

Cover of Greenpeace’s position paper on Cabo Cortés

NGOs oppose Cabo Cortés

When challenged about the legality of granting permission for a project which will impact the Marine Park, Semarnat officials have claimed that the ecological criteria in Semarnat regulations are “suggestive” rather than “obligatory”.

Several NGOs have already launched protest campaigns. Alejandro Olivera is spearheading Greenpeace’s opposition to Semarnat’s decision. He has described the decision as “erroneous” and claims that the megaproject is “not congruent with the prevailing ecological regulations for the region, given that the construction of the marina is in direct contravention of the Los Cabos Ecology Plan which covers this region. The plan expressly prohibits any construction on shoreline dunes. Semarnat maintains that its authorization of a marina and elevated walkways will not affect the “structure or functioning of the area’s sand dune system”.

Olivera emphasizes that Greenpeace is not opposed to tourism as a development strategy, but that it believes in sustainable (responsible) tourism that respects the area’s carrying capacity. Meanwhile, a Greenpeace Spain spokesperson claims that the resort development model of Hansa Urbana, is fundamentally flawed and outdated, and that, when implemented in Spain, it resulted in unacceptable social and environmental costs.

Amanda Maxwell of the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) has written a good summary of why the Semarnat decision should be opposed, entitled “Approval of the Cabo Cortés resort complex–next to the healthiest coral reef in the Gulf of California–is a huge step backward for Mexico

The 120 or so local residents who live in Cabo Pulmo village also oppose the plan and have formed an NGO called Cabo Pulmo Vivo. The existing village, which has no street lights, is a haphazard collection of homes and small businesses, including dive shops, stores and restaurants.

Cabo Pulmo Vivo organized on online petition calling for the Semarnat permits to be revoked.

Personal view, written following a visit in 2008

“We arrive in Cabo Pulmo as the sun is setting, relieved to finally find the end of the initially paved, then dirt, access road, which has been bounded by barbed wire ever since we caught our last clear views of the coast near La Ribera. At intervals behind the barbed wire are warning signs making it very clear that the land either side of the road is private.

Over a beer with Kent Ryan, the owner of Baja Bungalows, our base for the next few days, I learn that the newly erected fences mark the beginning of a major development of the coast immediately outside the National Marine Park. When I eventually got a chance to examine the masterplan, I can only say that I’m glad we visited Cabo Pulmo in early 2008 before this coast is changed for ever.” (Tony Burton in MexConnect)

Further information:

For an exceptionally informative series of papers (in Spanish) on all aspects of tourism and sustainability in Cabo Pulmo,  see Tourism and sustainability in Cabo Pulmo, published in 2008.

Another valuable resource (also in Spanish) is Greenpeace Spain’s position paper entitled Cabo Cortés, destruyendo el paraíso (“Cabo Cortés: destroying paradise”) (pdf file)

The geography of renewable energy from wind power in Mexico

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Dec 162010

According to the World Association of Wind Power, Mexico grew its wind power sector faster than any other country during 2009, and now has more than 500MW of installed windpower capacity.

Mexico’s goal is to have an installed capacity of 2,500 MW of wind energy by 2012, and to have 26% of the nation’s installed capacity coming from clean energy sources (solar, geothermal, wind, nuclear and large-scale HEP). The Federal Electricity Commission, responsible for the national power grid, is installing two “wind corridors” in Oaxaca to connect several different windpower plants into the grid.

Mexico’s Energy Secretariat recently announced the publication of a new resource of interest to planners and geographers. The Atlas of Wind and Solar power potential is designed to inform investors of the necessary meteorological and climatic background prior to taking significant investment decisions.

According to the Atlas, Mexico’s wind potential is estimated at 71,000 MW. This figure comfortably exceeds the nation’s current installed capacity for all forms of power of 51,000 MW.

The most important single wind-power region in Mexico, and also one of the most important at the global scale is the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrow belt of relatively low-lying land that links the Gulf coast (straddling the Veracruz-Tabasco state boundary) to the Pacific coast in the state of Oaxaca.

La Ventosa wind farm, Oaxaca

La Ventosa wind farm, Oaxaca

Several major wind farms have already been developed in the La Venta section of the Isthmus. Others are being constructed or on the drawing board. For example, Grupo Bimbo (which, with the acquisition of Sara Lee, has become the world’s largest bread- and pastry-maker) announced it is building a wind farm in association with Desarrollos Eólicos Mexicanos (Demex), a subsidiary of Spanish renewable energy firm Renovalia Energy. The “Piedra Larga” wind farm is under construction in Unión Hidalgo, Oaxaca. Costing $200 million, it will have an installed capacity of 90 MW when the first phase is complete, rising to 227 MW when the project is complete. This is sufficient energy to power all Bimbo’s producing and distribution needs in Mexico during the next 18 years at least. The first power will be generated early next year.

Two mining companies are also installing wind farms in Oaxaca, each with an installed capacity of 300MW.

Elsewhere, in Baja California, California-based Cannon Power Group plans is constructing a 1,000MW wind farm in Baja California. The 500 turbines of the 1-billion-dollar Aubanel Wind Project will be located southeast of the town of La Rumorosa, in the mountains between Tijuana and Mexicali. The turbines will supply power to both the USA and Mexico and are a separate project to the 1000MW wind farm planned by Energía Sierra Juárez, a subsidiary of Sempra, for an area north of La Rumorosa.

Currently, Mexico is developing wind power much more quickly than solar power, but this may change in the future, given that much of the country receives between 5 and 6kw/hr/square meter/day in solar energy, which is considerably more than most of the European countries which are now undertaking solar power development.

Related earlier post:

Energy is analyzed in chapter 16 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. and concepts of sustainability are explored in chapters 19 and 30.  Buy your copy today, so you have this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography available whenever you need it.

The sustainable management of Mexico’s natural environment, 2006-2008

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Nov 062010

The IMCO report on the competitiveness of Mexico’s states, which we briefly described in an earlier post, includes a significant section devoted to the sustainable management of Mexico’s natural environment.

IMCO’s sustainable management factor incorporates 14 distinct variables. For almost every variable, the average of all 32 state values for that variable has improved between 2006 and 2008. Only 1 of the 14 variables has worsened, and three have remained unchanged.

photo of garbage

Sadly, not all garbage finds its way into regulated landfills...

The variable that worsened was the proportion of energy derived from “clean” sources, which fell from 18.9% of the total energy produced in 2006 to 17.6% in 2008.

The three variables that remained unchanged were:

  • the surface experiencing drought or aridity
  • the area where soil degradation is a problem
  • and the number of species considered endangered.

The following 10 variables all showed a significant improvement between 2006 and 2008:

  • the annual rate of reforestation, up from 1.1% to 1.7%
  • the number of “environmental emergencies”, down from 11.3 to 10.9
  • the total area formally protected (biosphere reserves, national parks, etc), which increased slightly
  • the value of agricultural production compared to groundwater consumed for agriculture, which also increased slightly
  • the over-exploitation of aquifers, which fell by more than 10%
  • the volume of sewage (wastewater) that is treated, which rose from 859 liters/sec per million inhabitants to 962 liters/sec
  • carbon dioxide emissions which fell to 0.3 parts/million
  • the percentage of all waste entering regulated landfills, which increased from 58% of all waste to 62%
  • a fall in the total generation hazardous wastes
  • an increase in the number of companies certified as “clean”

In addition, the gap between the top-performing state for this factor (Aguascalientes) and the bottom-performing states (Chiapas and Oaxaca) has closed significantly.

Mexico’s environmental trends and issues are examined in chapter 30 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, purchase your own copy…

The thorny issues of plant and animal trafficking and biopiracy in Mexico

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on The thorny issues of plant and animal trafficking and biopiracy in Mexico
Oct 282010

In several previous posts we examined the megadiversity of Mexico’s ecosystems which include more than 10% of all the world’s living species.

Mexico’s biodiversity is under pressure from several quarters.

Plant and animal trafficking

Selling wildlife by the roadside in Chihuahua state

Roadside entrepreneurs sell wildlife in Chihuahua state. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Plant and animal trafficking is the country’s third largest criminal activity after illegal drugs and arms smuggling. Favored items include cacti, live birds (some species sell for upwards of $100,000), spider monkeys, sea turtles, snakes and jaguars. Mexico is one of 175 nations that have signed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) but this has had no discernible effect on the trafficking of flora and fauna.


Mexico’s megadiversity presents both opportunities, for activities such as ecotourism, as well as challenges such as preventing biopiracy. In its simplest form, biopiracy occurs whenever a bioprospector takes biological material from a place and then acquires a patent or intellectual property rights on it, or one of its constituents, elsewhere. The best documented example of biopiracy in Mexico occurred in 1999 when a US patent was granted to Colorado-based company Pod-ners for the exclusive right to market Enola beans bred from Mexican yellow beans bought only five years previously. Mexico’s bean export business collapsed overnight as shippers were accused of patent infringement. Yellow bean production in Sinaloa fell by 62% in three years.

Mexican growers subsequently proved that the yellow beans they had been breeding for decades are genetically identical to Enola beans but the damage had been done. Subsequently, the patent was challenged by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. In 2008 the US patent office finally reversed its decision and rejected any patent claims on yellow beans. While this case of biopiracy was thwarted, acts of biopiracy, by their very nature, are usually clandestine and there are certain to be other instances in the future.

This is an excerpt from chapter 30 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today, and learn more about Mexico’s fascinating geography. The more knowledge you acquire, the more pleasure you will derive from your next trip to Mexico!

The debate over GM corn in Mexico

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Oct 192010

Until relatively recently, Mexican authorities have staunchly resisted the introduction of GM corn into the country. Significant improvements in Mexico’s wheat and corn yields have been achieved in the past by long-term programs of selective breeding, such as that which was later dubbed the “Green Revolution“.

In 2009, however, Mexico’s Agriculture and Environment Secretariats approved a project financed by transnational seed firm Monsanto involving 30 hectares of  experimental plots in Sonora, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas planted with transgenic corn. Mexico still does not yet permit the commercialization of genetically-modified corn, but Monsanto has indicated publicly that it hopes that current rules will be relaxed as early as 2011. According to Monsanto, the new seed could boost annual corn production in Mexico by between 6 and 7 million tons, roughly the amount lost each year to disease and pests.

The Monsanto project was been widely condemned by environmental groups. A widely-published article earlier this month by journalist Mica Rosenberg offered an overview of how transgenic (GM) corn is clearly on its way into Mexican mainstream agriculture:

The article is disappointingly superficial in many respects, but does provide a useful starting point for discussions about the relative merits of allowing (or not) commercial imports of transgenic corn seed into Mexico.

As we write in Geo-Mexico, Mexican farmers are well aware of the importance of maintaining genetic diversity:

Mexican farmers share concerns about the on-going loss of genetic diversity, especially in native crops. For example, if all corn farmers planted imported hybrid corn seeds, native diversity would quickly be lost. In Tlaxcala, where about 90% of the corn is grown on non-irrigated land and where two-thirds of farmers grow corn only for their own use, local varieties have been selectively bred by farmers not only for their yields but also because of their color, taste, resistance to pests and ability to withstand strong winds or short-term droughts. Such characteristics are not necessarily important to commercial seed producers.

Events in other countries often have unexpected consequences in Mexico. For example, the price of Mexico’s corn imports from the USA has increased sharply as a result of the high subsidies offered in that country for corn-based biofuel and bio-additives. The rising import price of corn led to an increase in the price of tortillas which adversely affected the poorest sectors of Mexican society.

Furthermore, as we wrote in an earlier post, the Mexican government has shown its support for a major project aimed at ensuring that the genetic diversity of corn is preserved for future generations:

Is the introduction of GM corn into Mexico a good idea? Proponents argue that it will lead to higher yields and reduce losses from pests and diseases. In their view, commercial planting of GM corn in Mexico is inevitable and will help Mexico “catch up” with Brazil and Argentina, where GM crops are already being grown. Opponents argue that it will inevitably reduce the genetic diversity of corn, meaning that corn will have less resilience in future to unexpected (and unpredicted) changes (climate, pests, soil conditions, etc). They also argue that GM corn will make corn growers even more dependent on commercial seed producers.

Greenpeace protest against GM corn

Greenpeace protest against GM corn

At least two studies since 2001 have already found transgenic DNA in fields of native Mexican corn. The first, published in Nature in 2001, reported findings from the state of Oaxaca. One oft-expressed fear is that Monsanto’s fierce protection of its GM corn will lead to the company seeking damages from local farmers who are found to have any GM corn mixed into the native corn growing in their fields, even if this is the result of accidental contamination from neighboring fields where GM crops are being legally cultivated.

Mexico’s agriculture is analyzed in chapter 15 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. and concepts of sustainability are explored in chapters 19 and 30.  Buy your copy today, so you have this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography available whenever you need it.

Mexico at Expo 2010 Shanghai

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Oct 182010

Expo 2010 Shanghai is the largest ever universal exhibition. Its theme is “Better City, Better Life”. The Expo has brought together more than 190 countries and 50 international organization. Each country has its own pavilion in Expo 2010.

At the Mexican pavilion in Expo 2010 Shanghai, this week (October 18–22) is Environment Week. Buried in the website for Mexico’s pavilion is a video section entitled “Past and present in Mexico’s Cities”. [Sadly, the link at no longer works]. While navigation in this section is far from intuitive, it is well worth spending some time wandering around this labyrinth of riches, even if only by trial and error. There are some excellent short written descriptions in English of a wide range of topics, from Aztec chinampas (mud “islands” separated by canals) to urban growth in the 19th century to future directions for Mexico’s cities.

Here’s hoping that the in-depth resource, apparently the work of UNAM, the National University, continues to be available after Expo 2010 closes at the end of the month.

In Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, chapters 21 and 22 analyze Mexico’s 500-year transition to an urban society and the internal geography of Mexico’s cities. Chapter 23 looks at urban issues, problems and trends. To preview more parts of the book, click here and use’s “Look Inside” feature. Buy your copy today!