Alumni Life

The Hopeful Realist

Mexico’s top environmental officer brings pragmatism to the politics of climate change

Alejandro Rivera Becerra (PhD ’01, ME ’98, MS ’93).

Alejandro Rivera Becerra (PhD ’01, ME ’98, MS ’93)

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

“Climate change is something that relates to everyone. It’s not just a challenge for government.”
Alejandro Rivera Becerra (PhD ’01, ME ’98, MS ’93)

Alejandro Rivera Becerra (PhD ’01, ME ’98, MS ’93) was raised in Juárez, Mexico, which sits on the U.S. border across from El Paso, Texas, and is home to hundreds of factories that make goods mainly for the American market. Growing up in this environment, he developed an early interest in manufacturing and trade.

He began studying industrial engineering, eventually traveling to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship. While he chose UB for its engineering program, he was wowed by its internationalism. “I loved the diversity,” he recalls. “I was surprised to find 80 different countries represented there.” He earned three degrees at UB—two master’s, in industrial and environmental engineering, and a PhD in industrial engineering. He obtained the latter while simultaneously getting a master’s degree in diplomacy from the Instituto Matías Romero in Mexico.

Rivera Becerra worked as a quality assurance engineer for the Mexican auto industry in Juárez, and then as a professor of engineering, before joining the Mexican foreign service in 2000. He quickly climbed the ranks as a diplomat, honing his skills with posts in Ecuador and China before taking on his current role as director for climate change, Secretariat of Foreign Relations of Mexico.

This spring, Rivera Becerra made a rare visit to Buffalo to receive UB’s International Distinguished Alumni Award for his efforts to bring consensus and scientific rigor to the sticky debate over global climate change—or, more specifically, over what actions must be taken in both developed and developing countries that will protect the environment without damaging the international economy.

Sustainability is more than a romantic notion of saving trees, Rivera Becerra explains. It’s also about the biophysical sustenance of the economy. “The transformation we make in manufacturing and industry has to incorporate what is known as the life-cycle approach—products must be designed to function, but once you toss them, their environmental footprint must also be reduced.”

From 2011 to 2013, Rivera Becerra was Mexico’s negotiator for the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which resulted in a treaty calling for regulation of mercury emissions; it will enter into force once 50 countries ratify it. In 2013, he began his most challenging and historic role to date, as chief negotiator for Mexico to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a group representing 195 countries that was established in 1992 to develop worldwide climate policies. Rivera Becerra has been representing Mexico on one of the convention’s most important subcommittees, the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, which has been pushing for more expedient, legally binding action to curb global greenhouse gases. The working group hopes to conclude negotiations of the new global climate agreement by the end of this year, when world leaders meet in Paris.

“It’s a privilege and honor to be the voice of Mexico, to know that we are being heard and are showing leadership,” Rivera Becerra says, and then pauses, choosing his words. “In a few decades, I hope that this agreement helps change the paradigm of how the world develops. If we’re able to send a clear signal to the world about the consequences of our production and consumption patterns, then perhaps there can be hope to slow climate change.”

That’s not to say Rivera Becerra is expecting to reverse the damage. A realist, he recognizes that the human need for energy and resources will never go away, and thus focuses on helping people adapt to a changing world as sustainably as possible. “Climate change is something that relates to everyone,” he says. “It’s not just a challenge for government; it’s about everyday decisions that citizens make about their consumption of energy. We have to maintain and grow, but at the same time be responsible for future generations.”