Mexico’s new leader is a climate expert. Can she save an oil nation?

MEXICO CITY — She was an energy engineer, a quiet, driven Mexican academic who’d worked at a major U.S. government lab and investigated some of the toughest problems in climate change.

Claudia Sheinbaum was a natural choice when the prestigious U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change selected scientists for a landmark report in 2014. It would warn the world was hurtling toward “irreversible” damage from greenhouse gases, and call 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 would like to stress that aspect specifically — she never came across as a politician.”

Now, Sheinbaum is about to become Mexico’s president.

Her election has given hope to environmentalists and diplomats who’ve despaired as Mexico has gone from a global leader on climate change to a laggard.

Yet Sheinbaum has a complicated record. She’s the protégé of outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, who sidelined green-energy projects and prioritized tapping petroleum fields. In her recent stint as Mexico City mayor, Sheinbaum loyally defended his policies — even as she introduced electric buses and covered the capital’s massive food market with solar panels.

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

What direction will she take? The answer will have implications far beyond Mexico’s borders. The country is the world’s 11th-biggest oil producer, and the second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in Latin America. Much of that is derived from energy — car exhaust, methane emissions from gas and oil infrastructure, planet-warming gases drifting from fossil fuel-burning electricity plants.

Sheinbaum, 62, has outlined a $14 billion plan for new energy generation, focusing on wind, solar and hydropower. “We have to speed up the promotion of renewable energies,” she told business executives while campaigning in April. Her platform is an environmentalist’s wish list: more electric-powered public transit, greater energy efficiency, a program to take pollution-belching old cars and trucks off the road.

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

“What’s going to happen? That’s the big question for the country,” he said.

Sheinbaum grew up in a scientific household

Sheinbaum comes from a family of scientists deeply involved in leftist causes. Even as an undergraduate, she was tinkering with environmental problems, designing more efficient wood-burning stoves for rural Indigenous women. “It was quite difficult,” recalled Victor Alejandro Salcido, her thesis adviser — a project involving computer modeling and issues of combustion, fluid mechanics and efficiency.

While doing graduate work in the 1990s at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — part of the U.S. Department of Energy lab network — Sheinbaum got under the hood of much bigger systems. She analyzed energy use in some of Mexico’s largest contributors to climate change, including its transportation, building and steel sectors.

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions in difficult-to-decarbonize industrial sectors, such as steelmaking, is one of the toughest, most data-intensive challenges in climate science. Sheinbaum excelled, earning a doctorate in energy engineering from Mexico’s flagship National Autonomous University.

Two decades later, she became one of the lead authors for the industry chapter of the U.N. panel’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 remembered a meeting in South Korea where Sheinbaum went to the board and worked on an equation for the group.

“She knew her stuff very well.”

Roy was aware that the Mexican scientist was involved in politics but never suspected she would become head of state. “At the time, none of us could imagine this can happen,” she said.

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 secretary. But he also put her in charge of one of his signature projects, building a “second floor” on the ring road around Mexico City. Many environmentalists were appalled, believing the new highway would only encourage more cars, more exhaust.

Even as she oversaw its construction, however, Sheinbaum introduced the Metrobús — a rapid transit corridor with efficient, diesel-fueled buses. That system, which has grown to seven lines, saves around 70,000 tons of carbon-dioxide emissions per year. After she became mayor herself in 2018, Sheinbaum began converting the buses to electric power.

“She has had to put her political loyalty to López Obrador in the forefront, even in situations where she probably isn’t in agreement,” said Fernández.

Now she will have the chance to fully define her own policies. Or so environmentalists hope.

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

López Obrador’s influence over Sheinbaum

That 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 handpicked successor, rode his coattails to a landslide victory.

While López Obrador has promised he’ll retire when his term ends in September, many Mexicans are doubtful.

“It’s in the DNA of AMLO to continue to be the center of power,” said Carlos Heredia, an economist who served as an adviser to López Obrador when he was mayor.

Under López Obrador, a native of Tabasco state, in Mexico’s oil patch, environmental policies changed dramatically. He’d long seen Pemex as a symbol of national sovereignty, and believed Mexico should be independent in energy.

He spent billions of dollars on new oil refineries, and tried to undo a sweeping 2013 energy reform, which had opened the state-dominated oil, gas and electricity sectors to private firms. The president couldn’t muster the votes to scrap those laws, but he withheld permits to foreign businesses developing solar and wind-driven power, giving a bigger role to the national electricity company, which generally burned dirtier fuels.

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

Sheinbaum has vowed to maintain López Obrador’s policy guaranteeing state-run firms more than half the energy market. But she’s also promised she’ll issue “clear rules” for private investors to participate.

“You have to see her as a woman of the left, who believes a lot in state intervention, who believes in state-run businesses,” said Jesús Carrillo, economic director at the research group Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, known by its Spanish initials, IMCO.

Asked for comment, Sheinbaum’s campaign team referred The Washington Post to Marina Robles, who served as her environment secretary in recent years.

Robles denied any contradiction in Sheinbaum’s embrace of both government energy firms and renewables.

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

Mexico’s overwhelmed energy system

Sheinbaum will be constrained not just by politics, but by economics.

Today, Mexico’s power grid depends on cheap natural gas from Texas to keep the lights on. Pemex has become the world’s most indebted energy company. It has been unable to invest in capturing methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from its infrastructure, according to Diego Rivera Rivota, a senior research associate at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

“What we have today is a very challenging situation,” he said.

One of López Obrador’s most important renewable energy investments is Plan Sonora, a $1.6 billion solar megaproject in northern Mexico built by the federal electricity company. But for years, that company has skimped on investing in transmission lines that could connect homes and businesses to solar- or wind-powered electricity farms. Without such a network, “there’s no way we can use that electricity,” said Isabel Studer, director of the Mexican nonprofit group Global Sustainability.

Mexico’s economic growth has been slowing, and Sheinbaum has promised to cut the federal deficit, now 6 percent of GDP, the highest in decades. Given such financial constraints, she’ll need to attract private investors to carry out her ambitious plans for more renewable energy, analysts say. But she wants to cap their output at less than half of Mexico’s electricity production, following López Obrador’s lead.

Investors may also be discouraged by a sweeping plan being pushed by the outgoing president to establish the direct election of judges. While that’s not directly related to the environment, businesses fear it could weaken judicial independence and erode legal guarantees. The idea has spooked financial markets, causing the Mexican peso to slump in recent weeks.

“You have to provide certainty,” said Odón de Buen, former director of the National Commission for the Efficient Use of Energy. “If I’m looking to invest $10 billion in something and recoup my investment over 30 years, but I realize the rules of the game could change in three years, I won’t take the risk.”

Sheinbaum has shown political skill in attracting international funding without tarnishing her nationalist credentials, according to people who have worked with her. As mayor, she participated in several major energy and environment projects with the U.S. Agency for International Development, while rarely highlighting that partnership.

But she also has tried to balance her environmental program with her efforts to help lower-income neighborhoods. She built electric-powered aerial cable-cars in hillside slums, and carved out parks in the capital’s poorer east side.

“Environmental improvements have to be accompanied by social justice,” said Robles, describing Sheinbaum’s philosophy.

Even if Sheinbaum maintains some of López Obrador’s policies, many scientists believe her six-year term will be different. “The environmental theme isn’t secondary for her,” said Alberto Rojas, who studied with her in a program for environmental leaders at the College of Mexico. “It’s her theme.”

Grandoni reported from Washington; Ríos reported from Monterrey.

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