What Paris and Guaymas Have in Common

Guaymas, Mexico, is an industrial and shrimp-fishing port in the desert state of Sonora. Giant cargo ships nose past steep, uninhabited islands in the bay crowded with saguaro cacti.

This is one of our first stops on the mainland side of Mexico (the sail over from Baja deserves its own post, coming soon.) Guaymas is well-known for inexpensive haulouts and easy-ish access to boat parts, so Oleada has been ‘on the hard’ here for the last month as we paint the bottom with new growth-fighting paint and get to a long list of improvements.

After sailing all around the Baja peninsula (the blue line is our apporximate track,) we finally hopped over to the mainland and the industrial port city of Guaymas.

After sailing all around the Baja peninsula (the blue line is our approximate track,) we finally hopped over to the mainland and the industrial port city of Guaymas. We would have loved to sail further north, but the vicious tides and earlier-than-normal north winds kept us from the most northern parts of the Sea of Cortez.

Every morning for the past month I have lived here, Guaymas has held two certainties: the shriek of an Osprey that patrols the harbor waters, and a brown cloud lacing its way through the desert hills to the marina. Industry meets nature in close quarters here. The Osprey, or sea hawk, takes advantage of city living, using light poles in the marina to perch and spot fish. The haze is also part of city life; it comes from an electricity generation plant that burns oil over one of the poorest neighborhoods in town. I watched this brown air extend out into the coastal city every morning while 195 nations debated what could be done about our warming planet at the 21st annual UN Conference of Parties (COP) in Paris. Paris is over 5,000 miles from Guaymas, and under the burning oil haze, the negotiations felt far indeed.

Carbon over Guaymas: the view from the boatyard every morning.

Carbon over Guaymas: the view from the boatyard every morning.


So when most of the world’s countries agreed, in a landmark deal, to aim to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees C (2.5 degree F,) I felt both skeptical and hopeful. I was wary because one of the main problems with the deal is that the actual national commitments do not add up to the goal of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees C. They add up to 3.5 degrees C (6.3 degree F)—which means a much higher risk of all the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melting into the sea. (Swamping Guaymas, incidentally.) However, getting 195 anything, nevermind countries, to agree on something is flabbergasting and speaks volumes to clever orchestration of the event as well as the growing urgency of the climate threat.

After 20 years of failed and semi-failed COPs, why did it work this time?

Because Paris (COP21) was more than an agreement generated over two weeks. It began years ago—and a change in Guaymas hints at how. In 2014, Mexico committed 2.8 billion USD to a new electric generating station here that will burn natural gas. The plant takes advantage of the proximity to the US border, building a natural gas pipeline to import the cleaner, cheaper fuel flooding the US market. This is good news for both Guaymas and Paris, since natural gas releases about two-thirds the amount of carbon as oil, and fewer cancer-causing particles into the air around the city. It’s not a perfect solution, much like the Paris agreement—but it’s movement that reflects a national commitment to an international issue.

Mexico had already made a bold goal to cut emissions as well. In 2012, the federal government enacted a law requiring 35% renewable energy generation by 2025. Natural gas won’t meet this goal—but Sonora has desert sun that could drive the development of the 6 Gigawatts of solar needed to meet this target. So far, there are 176 Megawatts of solar installed in the state (one gigawatt is 1,000 megawatts—which means .03% is completed.) Many are skeptical that the country could achieve a buildout that quickly. But it’s a start.

Mexico was not alone in reaching for cleaner fuel. In 2014, breakthroughs like this occurred with the world’s biggest up-and-coming polluters. China agreed to cut emissions by 2030 and initiated a huge solar and wind expansion. India fell in step by committing to 100 Gigawatts of solar by 2022. As Dan Lashof at the National Resource Defense Council put it, these commitments don’t keep the globe to 1.5 degrees C of warming, but “they end the reckless global game of chicken that has characterized climate negotiations until now.”

In addition to these national commitments, Paris saw an awesome outpouring of ‘locals.’ Governors and mayors showed up by the thousands, with pledges to cut emissions far deeper than their national agreements. California and the German state Badden-Wuttenberg created an agreement called the Under 2 MoU, which was signed by 80 jurisdictions with a combined worth of more than the GDP of the United States. They agreed to cut emissions by 80 percent or to 2 tons by 2030. These states are ahead of national policy as the ‘early adopters,’ showing the rest of the world that it’s possible to achieve drastic emissions cuts in minimal time.

Finally, the developed nations of the world agreed to help fund not only the technology needed to replace coal and oil, but also the damages caused by the flooding, droughts, and sea level rise of climate change. Many island nations were disappointed that no number was specified—yet liability was recognized for the first time, even if the accord doesn’t use that “L” word. While the conference was first about mitigation—reducing the carbon going into the atmosphere—it also included much-needed recognition of adaptation funding for the countries already experiencing the impacts of climate change.

A week has passed since the negotiators, youth activists, governors and country delegates went home from Paris. This morning, the Osprey still circled the harbor in Guaymas, repeating its shrill cries, and the thin brown cloud leaked over the hill and into the port city. Clouds gave way to a hazy sky, and life proceeded under the desert sun.

Morning light in the center of Guaymas.

Morning light in the center of Guaymas.

7 Responses to What Paris and Guaymas Have in Common

  1. Rebecca December 21, 2015 at 5:44 pm #

    What is the name of the natural gas power plant? Great article.

    • Jess December 22, 2015 at 10:05 am #

      Thank you! And good question. It’s the Guaymas II combined-cycle power plant. Searching for info I found some contradicting names, though, and sometimes the current plant name was used, making it really confusing. I ended up finding the most reliable info from the CEC. Next time I’ll be sure to include those names!

  2. David December 22, 2015 at 8:42 am #

    But is natural gas really so much better? What about methane release and water use from fracking? In the end, possibly worse than coal….


    We just returned from a landbased trip around Greece (great trip!) and were very impressed by the many (!) solar and wind “farms”.


    • Jess December 22, 2015 at 10:00 am #

      David, I love your question and life update all in one 🙂 Thank you thank you for this excellent observation and nod to this ongoing debate about natural gas!!

      Newer research suggests that those initial claims (and bad science) about natural gas did not reflect the reality of extraction: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/natural-gas-really-better-coal-180949739/?no-ist. In addition, it’s worth understanding how differently methane and carbon dioxide affect our atmosphere, since methane has a much shorter lifetime (tens of years as opposed to hundreds): http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html. (The EPA even claims that emissions from gas exploration decreased recently while agricultural emissions rose.) Finally, burning oil over the poorest neighborhoods in Guaymas presents a classic environmental justice situation: the poorest are the most affected by the particulates released by burning dirty bunker fuel–a natural gas plant not only burns cleaner, but a new plant would be outside of town.

      That said, natural gas is a finite fossil fuel resource that pollutes on all ends, and I personally have zero, ZERO desire to claim it’s a good long or even medium-term solution. It would be better to transition straight to concentrating solar power (CSP) with silica-based molten salt storage! http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/why-concentrating-solar-power-needs-storage-to-survive

      But I even struggle with the impact of solar and wind, since I worked for years as a biologist on the largest CSP project in the world; in fact, that’s what motivated me to return to graduate school. I couldn’t believe that we were tearing up remarkably pristine desert every day to export a little power to cities hundreds of miles away–that could generate their own energy on already developed rooftops–a new climate / environmental justice issue. I couldn’t believe the emissions required to build the facility, which has a dedicated natural gas pipeline so they can provide “baseload” power to the grid, meaning they can provide/sell power 24 hours a day. A Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA), or a cradle-to-grave analysis, would reveal some grave impacts, from metal extraction for panels and cables to construction to large amounts of carbon released by turning over the desert (and often-overlooked impact that can be the equivalent or greater of felling a tract of rainforest of equal or greater size!) Incidentally, water is also a serious issue for solar projects–and the company who developed the CSP tech for this solar project ALSO develops and builds shale extraction tech (Brightsource)!

      I wrote a blog about how my thinking evolved on this solar project once I learned more about climate at the Energy and Resources Group: http://sailingforclimate.com/ivanpah-is-my-backyard/ (You might be surprised by my conclusions!)

      Ultimately, meeting a bold emissions reduction goal will require quite a few transitions, both for electricity generation and transmission, especially in developing world places like Mexico that already have an decrepit energy infrastructure (they’re not starting from scratch and have to deal with the same grid issues as the US, like how the heck you get wind energy dispersed from the Midwest at night to the coastal cities on insufficient transmission lines.) The point I’m making is that we can’t be paralyzed by the task at hand (you know, saving the world,) and we already have the technology to make the transition. Even when insufficient, just getting started is moving in the right direction and can accelerate change in general, opening investment possibilities and building cross-border connectedness that would make it possible for Mexico, the US, and Canada to efficiently support each other’s grids and utilize each country’s renewable resources. That’s part of the reason many people were really excited about this climate accord: it could usher in a new era where developed and developing nations work together toward a common goal with an eye to climate justice. To provide baseload power while bringing renewables online, there might have to be a short-term that includes natural gas to get Mexico decreasing emissions while improving the livelihoods and health of its citizens–over half of whom live in poverty and have no education above the 6th grade.

      Phew! How ’bout that can of worms, eh? I hope you’re not sorry you asked, I LOVE talking about the grid!!

      And one last thing: as individuals, our greatest single impact is flying: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/11/28/science/what-is-climate-change.html?_r=0.

      I’m going to have to insist you sail to Greece next time 😉

  3. ron December 22, 2015 at 11:52 am #

    Friend Briana Ratterman Trevithick supplied your site. I’m an old sailor and love all things boats. First, recommend Steinbeck’s “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”, especially if you are still there. First boat I sailed on was a 1961 Cal-24 centerboarder out of Chicago. Mostly racing in those days, 1960s. Am a bit of a sceptic, but will enjoy reading your research and your adventures. Fair winds on the beam, Ron

    • Jess December 22, 2015 at 3:16 pm #

      All skeptics, sailors, and skeptical sailors welcome aboard, Ron! Especially friends of Briana AND Cal sailors! The topics weave all over the place on the blog, from sailing to research to foreign travel to dogs, so hopefully there will be some to your liking.

      We have a well-worn copy of The Log on the boat, I love that book! I laugh out loud just thinking about his descriptions of their trials with the sea cow, their outboard motor–it’s just so close to home.

      Thanks for your comment and for reading!

  4. daniel January 3, 2016 at 10:11 am #

    Still waiting for someone to figure out an economical way for my solar panels to produce fuel all day that can power a Bloom box , or equivalent fuel cell all night. I’ve got plenty of bio mass as well. Would certainly rather be putting it into the grid rather than just up the chimneys of the woodstoves and into the clouds with burn piles. Just because biomass is losing to solar on a large scale shouldn’t mean that we give up on it entirely. I hope science can find a way to make it practical to use it for electricity generation on a local/small scale level.

Leave a Comment

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes