Rafael Pacchiano
Undersecretary of Management for Environmental Protection
SEMARNAT
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Insight

Instruments and Actions for a Sustainable Nation

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 08:37

Mexico has the good fortune of being among the countries with the world’s greatest biodiversity. The country is home to around 12% of the world’s species but is in growing danger of losing its privileged position. Forests have been among the most critical losses, since 50% of the national territory is considered to be forest vocation land due to this ecosystem’s prior abundance. Illegal logging is seeing Mexican green cover vanish at a rate of approximately 150,000 hectares per year. In addition to the loss of biodiversity, environmental degradation has costs amounting to 7% of GNP. The number of vulnerable and extinct species and the annual deforestation rate are clear signs that the conservationist model is not working as expected.

Rafael Pacchiano, Undersecretary of Management for Environmental Protection of SEMARNAT, explains that the current administration is taking a different approach toward these issues. He says that the lack of economic resources and opportunities leads to environmental deterioration. Therefore, the government sees it as vital to enable people living in naturally rich areas to take advantage of available resources in a sustainable way while improving their quality of life. This strategy empowers local communities as part of Mexico’s actions against climate change.

SEMARNAT’s duties include facilitating the development of large energy projects in Mexico while ensuring that all projects respect the environmental regulations. To do this, SEMARNAT has coordination mechanisms to establish norms and regulate projects and their processes with the active participation of three undersecretaries. The Undersecretary of Management for Environmental Protection, run by Pacchiano, is in charge of monitoring national programs that enable SEMARNAT to manage emission inventories.

Under this umbrella, a wide range of instruments are used to protect Mexico’s natural resources. The Environmental Impact Assessment is used to evaluate the risk of environmental alterations. This instrument determines the magnitude of possible environmental impacts and proposes measures to minimize them, while holding involved parties accountable for externalities. The Mexican Forestry Fund is a clear example of this mechanism. When a party requests a change in land use, it has to reforest an area three times the size of the zone that will be deforested. The interested party must also justify that the environmental and social benefits of any relevant project exceeds any predictable environmental impact.

Even though Mexico was one of the first countries to adopt strategic environmental evaluations, the Environmental Impact Assessment has not seen many changes in the past 20 years. Although the Assessment has always been strict, SEMARNAT is seeking to improve it so it may better cater to today’s environmental needs, such as measuring cumulative impacts in one area. This is just one of several changes SEMARNAT is making to its tools, which also includes modifications to the way a project’s carbon footprint is measured.

The power and transportation sectors are responsible for 22% of Mexico’s greenhouse emissions, making one of SEMARNAT’s priorities to reduce emissions across both sectors. Waste management in cities is another keystone in SEMARNAT’s plans, a priority for current federal and state administrations, and is included in political agreements. Pacchiano states that 30% of a large urban center’s trash ends up in open pits, some of which operate without permits. “Some landfills are under development. The problem is that a very small portion of trash is being reused and we still have a long way to go before waste- to-energy becomes a viable option.” SEMARNAT is doing extensive research on incineration techniques to generate power with inorganic waste. For example, the Mexico City government has plans to make the city trash free by giving value to waste that can be used for energy production.

Finally, Pacchiano points to specific indicators having been included within the National Development Plan for the first time. All actions taken by the different secretariats must now include these indicators to allow the performance of their activities to be measured. These indicators’ methodology has been tested and approved at the international level. “This forces us to work hard because we are going to be subjected to constant public evaluation.”