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Tackling climate change in Mexico: Lessons from four frontrunning cities

Aerial view of downtown Xalapa

Cities around the world are embarking on ambitious initiatives to foster low-carbon, climate-resilient urban development. Mexico’s urban areas – home to four-fifths of the country’s population – are no exception.

Our three new Mexico Frontrunners briefs explore innovative approaches Mexico’s cities have adopted to meet the challenges presented by urbanisation and climate change.

Focusing on eco-housing in Hermosillo, sustainable cycling in Mexico City and Guadalajara, and climate change adaptation in Xalapa, the briefs provide lessons for others who hope to cultivate compact, connected and clean cities in Mexico and beyond.

Cutting carbon emissions through affordable eco-housing

Our first brief explores one of Mexico’s flagship housing programmes, the EcoCasa programme in Hermosillo.

Mexico’s urban population has doubled over the last 25 years, and it is projected that the country will require around 8 million new homes to be built and over 12 million to be refurbished by 2050 to keep up with demand. Most of this will be in cities and will affect low-income populations.

Mexico has taken ambitious action in the housing sector to meet these challenges. EcoCasa in the northwestern city of Hermosillo provides housing developers with loans and technical assistance to construct energy-efficient housing for families with low incomes.

Between 2013 and 2019, homes built by EcoCasa may have saved almost 2 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 emissions – roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of a small island state such as Puerto Rico.

Andrew Sudmant, Research Fellow at the University of Leeds and co-author of the brief explained more. “As well as the direct reduction in CO2 emissions from EcoCasa homes in Hermosillo, the initiative has contributed to the development of clear environmental standards at the national level – its home energy performance assessment system has now been used to plan more than 325,000 homes.”

He added, “EcoCasa holds lessons for national governments worldwide who are looking for ways to deliver sustainable and affordable homes while benefitting society, the economy and the environment.”

The potential of urban cycling schemes 

Congestion already costs cities 1–5% of GDP and poor outdoor air quality is responsible for more than 3 million global deaths each year. Rapidly increasing private car ownership is exacerbating this problem.

Reliable, affordable, safe and clean urban mobility is essential for sustainable cities and has proven even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people struggle to safely access the jobs, education, healthcare and amenities they need.

Public bicycle-sharing schemes (PBSSs) provide one potential solution. As well as addressing urban mobility challenges, the schemes significantly benefit public health: by increasing physical activity and reducing air pollution they save lives. More than 1,200 PBSSs have been developed globally in just the last decade.

While PBSSs in both cities cover a relatively small part of the metropolitan areas, our analysis shows they are a critical piece of urban transport infrastructure, as Arturo Balderas Torres founder and director at Mexico’s Centre for Research and Projects in Environment and Development (CIPAD) and the brief’s leading author explained: “There is huge scope to scale-up these cycle schemes. If Mexico’s 20 urban areas with populations greater than 500,000 implemented schemes such as those in Mexico City and Guadalajara – and their existing PBSSs increased ambition even further – then thousands of lives could be saved year on year from improved public health.”

Adapting to a changing climate in mountainous cities

Mountainous areas are home to nearly a billion people worldwide. These areas are particularly vulnerable to climate risks, including floods and droughts. However, the distinct challenges faced by mountainous regions as they adapt to a changing climate are often overlooked.

The issue is particularly relevant in Mexico, with half of the country’s territory covered by mountains and nearly 30% of the population living in mountainous areas.

Our third brief focuses on the mountainous city of Xalapa. Andrew commented: “In 2013, Xalapa was one of the first places in Latin America to publish a local climate action plan. Several years and two governmental changes later, its experiences show how sustained collaboration, long-term vision and incremental implementation can bring transformational change for the benefit of communities.”

The brief identifies the factors that helped Xalapa successfully implement its action plan, including political will across successive governments, development of partnerships between city and national government and opportunities for public participation.

The brief also highlights the critical importance of support from national government in making the plan a success. By highlighting these factors, Xalapa demonstrates what is possible and can serve as an inspiration to other mountain cities across Mexico and further afield.

Read the briefings.