Mexico City Gives 2010 Summit a Front Row Seat to the Climate Crisis

Humanitarian, Economic Challenges Are Obvious in the Streets

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It’s been weeks since the Copenhagen climate talks ended, and the blame game hasn’t dulled but become more shrill. In all the finger pointing, one thing that has been lacking is consideration that achievement of a binding legal deal on climate change may be better served under the skies of a gritty, dynamic urban center in an emerging market country than a pristine old world capital.

In Mexico City, where the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC meets again in late November with hopes of this time reaching a legally binding climate accord, developed countries will not so easily be able to ignore the pressure climate change will place on a majority of the world’s population — a population that is more cramped for space and has less wealth per capita than the people of major cities in developed countries around the world.

That developing countries will disproportionately bear the brunt of climate change is well known. By the time the temporal test year for emissions cuts, 2020 arrives, many emerging market countries — those that share characteristics mostly with developing but also have some characteristics of developed countries, countries the next climate agreement hinge on — will be coming of age.

Their recent economic past means that they have large urban centers characterized by slums (read: deep informal economies and dire lack of stable infrastructure) with high levels of poverty like developing countries but also burgeoning middle classes demanding access to resources and social stability like developed countries. Due to their geographic locations they will face, like developing countries, the brunt of climate change.

For emerging markets, whose major cities drive their economic growth, climate change fundamentally threatens economic development. Their national security is fundamentally dependent upon their economic development. Nowhere is the recognition for action on climate change more apparent therefore, than in major cities in emergent markets, like Mexico City.

Mexico City’s own adaptation plan notes,

“Due to its size in terms of population and economic activity, its role in the world, and its status as Mexico’s seat of government power, Mexico City is a major contributor to the problem [of climate change]; at the same time, it is an actor whose symbolic value cannot be underrated and a space in which the city’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change has become a national security issue.”

Emerging markets as a block — a block that the BASIC countries of Brazil, South Africa, India and China proved in Copenhagen have plenty of geopolitical moxie and are parting ways with the U.S. lately — will comprise nearly one-fifth of the global economy in the next decade. By 2020, China will be just a few years away from overtaking the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. Collectively, they will be in a position to displace the IMF and the World Bank in terms of aid to each other and to less-developed countries.

These dynamic economies will be in a better position to transfer technology for adaptation and mitigation of climate change both between themselves and downstream to developing countries through trade, labor and learning agreements. As a result, the global economy and character of globalization at the turn of the next decade will be vastly different from today. In as much of the future as we can divine, it’s clear it belongs to the EMEs (emerging market economies).

Mexico, unlike its sister EMEs, is a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which could help it bridge the divide as the host nation for COP16.

Kim Carstensen, head of WWF’s Climate Change program, explains:

“Mexico, with it’s very special situation being both an OECD country and a developing country, being a member of the G77 but also developing, of being there in the middle in a special no man’s land where there are very few other countries, they can use that situation to become a bridging land that can help get rid of some of that trust gulf that has come up between the north and the south that has become very detrimental for these negotiations.”

According to the OECD, cities in general consume two-thirds of the world’s energy and house over 50% of the world’s population, though the average is higher in developing countries. Cities provide captive audiences for trial and implementation of green policies, tend to be more effective than national governments at implementing green policies, and already are responsible for 70% of public investment and 50% public financing on climate change.

Mexico City is indicative of global condition in a way that Copenhagen is not: it accounts for 22% of Mexico’s entire GDP, it’s entire metropolitan area contains 18.9 million people and has a population density of 5,900 per square kilometer. By comparison, Copenhagen has a population of about 1.8 million and its population density is 667 people per square kilometer. In a ranking of the world’s richest cities by purchasing power, Copenhagen is number 16, while Mexico City is number 69, below Shanghai and Beijing and Delhi. In terms of a city in which the next marker is negotiated for climate change, Mexico City is simply a better symbol.

But at the same time, the OECD notes, local governments are better enabled by strong national policies. There may be an argument to be made, that no matter what international agreement on climate policy is agreed, a strong national policy is essential to combating climate change, not only in terms of government policy, but also as a catalyst for business and investment.

In his final official press conference at Copenhagen, Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said of the 2020 deadline,

“The major developing countries have outlined national action plans that would take their emissions 28% below a business as usual path. … Industrialized countries, with what’s on the table, are not in their range. Major developing countries are almost out the other end of the range. In a sense, you could say that developing countries are more on track to responding to science than the industrialized world is.”

Robert Orr, UN assistant secretary-general for policy coordination and strategic planning, noted that developing countries reduction targets are likely “conservative.”

“During the negotiation, it was a common refrain among many governments that they thought that with every passing month they could surpass their targets, that they are learning as they go,” Orr explained. “Now as they are getting into seeking efficiencies adopting some new technologies as they adopt new technology, many are seeing bigger gains than they counted on.”

Developing countries “get” climate change better than developed countries. By the time 2020 rolls around and the success of a COP16 Accord is measured, Mexico City and EMEs will be the measure of the world.


See also:

Is China Still a Developing Country?

China’s Entrepreneurs Are Ready, But Is Their Government?

Could Climate Change Be the End of the ‘Third World’?

Conference of Parties ‘Takes Note Of’ Copenhagen Accord

Adapting and Mitigating Climate Change: A Deeply Nuanced Approach


(Photos, top to bottom: simonpocock/CC BY-NC 2.0; andreasnilsson/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)