Female president, green-policy turn likely in Mexico


Claudia Sheinbaum (Photo courtesy of the Government of Mexico City)

Mexico’s June 2, 2024 presidential elections could break important ground. That’s mostly so because Claudia Sheinbaum and Xóchitl Gálvez, the two front-runners, are women, meaning Mexico next year will almost certainly elect its first-ever female president.

There’s also an environmental dimension. Both candidates—the left-leaning Sheinbaum, who has deep green-policy experience and expertise, and the center-right Gálvez, who has a background in business—appear determined to shift Mexico to renewable energy from its longstanding dependence on fossil fuels.

Sheinbaum emerged Sept. 6 as the candidate of the leftist ruling party headed by current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who under the Constitution is limited to a single six-year term in office. The party, the National Regeneration Movement (Morena), is presenting a common electoral front with the Ecological Green Party of Mexico and the Labor Party.

As mayor of Mexico City from 2018 to June of this year, Sheinbaum pursued a range of environmental initiatives ranging from green-space expansion and rainwater harvesting to transit innovation, air quality improvement, and development of a 25-hectare (62-acre) solar farm. (See "Sheinbaum builds green-policy record as mayor " —EcoAméricas, April 2023.)

Previously, she spent six years as Mexico City’s top environmental official under then-Mayor López Obrador. And before that, Sheinbaum, an environmental engineer, received a doctorate from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, where she researched Mexican energy use, and served on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Three days before Sheinbaum became the Morena party’s standard bearer, Xóchitl Gálvez was nominated as the candidate for the Broad Front for Mexico (FAM). That three-party alliance comprises the center-right National Action Party (PAN), the once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).

Gálvez, who describes herself as Indigenous, is a computer engineer and holds a masters in artificial intelligence and telecommunications, both of which she considers important areas of opportunity to expand Mexico’s economy. She headed Mexico’s Indigenous affairs agency during the administration of former President Vicente Fox, and has served as mayor of a Mexico City borough and, most recently, as a national senator for the PAN.

Strides by women

A win by Gálvez or Sheinbaum could help consolidate gender-balance gains among elected officials, analysts say. As recently as 2000, only 16% members of Mexico’s Congress were women; but during López Obrador’s presidency, Congress achieved gender parity for the first time. Sheinbaum beat five men in the polling for the Morena nomination, though one of the unsuccessful candidates, former Mexican Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, has contested the result, citing “irregularities.”

Environmentalists have mixed feelings about Sheinbaum. Some view her as a politically timid technocrat too often stifled as mayor by López Obrador, whose pursuit of a nationalist agenda has often involved ignoring and denying scientific evidence regarding environmental impacts. Her harshest critics fear that if she wins the election, she will do López Obrador’s bidding even after she replaces him in December 2024.

But both Sheinbaum and Gálvez have pledged to increase the supply and use of renewable energy, a trend López Obrador resisted by emphasizing development of Mexico’s fossil-fuel resources as a matter of national sovereignty. An early challenge on that score will be what to do about Pemex, Mexico’s sprawling and pollution-prone state-owned oil company. Gálvez says she would replace Pemex with a new state energy company, declaring that Mexico has no future without clean energy.

Daniel Basurto, head of the technical advisory board of the Mexican Academy of Environmental Impact (AMIA), says a broader question is whether Mexico’s next president will end what he describes as the current government’s willful and persistent disregard for the environmental effects of development projects.
Under López Obrador, the military has been enlisted in the development of infrastructure projects, he points out, asserting its role in part has been to quash environmental opposition. Such has been the case, he argues, with construction of a major train route on the Yucatán Peninsula, called Tren Maya, and the large Dos Bocas oil refinery in the president’s home state of Tabasco. Meanwhile, he adds, environmental concerns have been ignored by the public agencies whose job it is to address them.

“Not one of the six federal entities in charge of environmental matters does its duty,” he says. “They are plagued with ineptitude, and we receive no response or follow up to our concerns…[And] it won’t be easy to get the military to let go of the power—and, consequently, money—López Obrador has granted them.”

Backdrop of cuts

Basurto notes federal environmental funding has been slashed 60% over the past six years, creating a budgetary dilemma for a new president hoping to launch green initiatives. Although Sheinbaum’s environmental knowledge runs deep, Basurto and some other experts believe Gálvez’s entrepreneurial background could better equip her for that challenge.

“Gálvez, with her business background, has demonstrated her ability to maximize the efficient use of material resources, a logic that can be usefully applied to natural resources,” he says. “Whereas Sheinbaum has not demonstrated this capability to date.”

Others argue that Sheinbaum, aside from possessing political skills she acquired as mayor, would draw productively as president on her unique environmental experience and expertise for the benefit of Mexico and the world.

“If Dr. Sheinbaum were to become president her scientific background and systemic understanding of environmental issues would allow a change of direction in the federal political agenda, particularly in terms of the climate crisis,” says Pablo Lazo, Mexico-based director of urban development for the nonprofit World Resources Institute (WRI). “She could be far more involved in the international climate-change debate, investment policies, and other requirements needed to meet international commitments and fit in with the international climate-change agenda.”

- Lara Rodríguez

In the index: Xóchitl Gálvez (Photo by Octavio Hoyos/Shutterstock)

Daniel Basurto
President, Technical Advisory Board
Mexican Academy of Environmental Impact
Mexico City, Mexico
Email: dbasurto@ideaspas.mx
Pablo Lazo
Urban Development, Water and Green Infrastructure
World Resources Institute
Mexico City, Mexico
Email: pablo.lazo@wri.org