By Sinta Stepani
The newly elected President of Costa Rica, one of the world’s youngest heads of state, 38-year-old former journalist Carlos Alvarado, has vowed to fully decarbonize the country’s economy and makeit the first carbon-neutral nation in the world by 2021, on the 200th anniversary of its independence.
“Decarbonization is the great task of our generation and Costa Rica must be one of the first countries in the world to accomplish it, if not the first,” Alvarado said in his inauguration speech of 2018. ”We have the titanic and beautiful task of abolishing the use of fossil fuels in our economy to make way for the use of clean and renewable energies.”
Many commentators interpreted this as a decision to ban fossil fuels. Not quite true.
Costa Rica does not have legislation in place to restrict the use of fossil fuels, nor does its constituency plan to. However, it stepped up its ambition in reducing its share to the negative, climate change –related global ecological footprint.
Its Minister of Environment and Energy, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez plans to alter the country’s PEM (Primary Energy Mix) by gradually decarbonizing it, but also by planting forests, employing better land management, and by the forthcoming carbon sequestration technologies.
Aiming for carbon neutrality by ambitiously set 2021, the tiny Central American state is signaling it wants to beat bigger, more developed and wealthier countries to environmental glory.
The UK and much of Scandinavia targets 2050 as the year of zero net emissions. Germany hoped for the 95% reduction by 2020, but will most probably miss it.
Costa Rica’s climate change started with its leaders’ change
“Our crisis cannot be environmental… Deep and structural, this must be a crisis of our cognitivity the latest Climate Change (CC) Report is seemingly only on Climate. It is actually a behavioristic study of (the developmental dead end of) our other ‘CC’ – competition and confrontation, instead of cooperation and consensus.” – warns prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic, and concludes: “Cognitive mind can do it all.”
Well, Costa Rica has it in its grasp: Home to less than 5 million people, it has long played above its weight on climate change policy formulation, norm setting, and instrument formulations as well as on implementation policies and practical actions.
The country has produced echelons of leaders who have promoted vigorous and progressive environmental policies at home and on the international stage.
Former President José María Figueres served in the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Advisory Group on Climate Change and Energy. His younger sister, Christiana Figueres, chaired the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN block that convened the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
Foresightedly, Costa Rica has had no standing army since 1948.
In 1994 the country amended its constitution to embody a healthy environment for its citizens as one of the fundamental human rights.
Complementing the unique constitutional right, Costa Rica has impressive practical results in greening its economy.
In 2018 only, the country went 300 days using only renewable energy. As of December 2018, 98,15% of electricity is produced from water, wind, geothermal energy, biomass and the sun (thermal and photovoltaic). Back in 2015, it managed to generate 100 % of its electricity from renewable energy sources for 299 days; in 2016, it ran for 271 days and in 2017 for 300 days on everything but fossil fuels.
According to the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity, the country generates most of its electricity, around 99%, with a variety of methods including hydropower (78 %), wind (10%), geothermal energy (10% biomass (15%) and solar (1%).
However, there is still a lot to do. Almost 70% of the country’s (non-electricity) energy consumption still comes for the PEM composed of fossil fuels. Transportation heavily leans on gasoline while gas is still widely used for cooking and smaller vehicles.
In order to meet the targets (domestic and these emanating from the Paris Agreement) on carbon neutrality by 2021, Costa Rica – on its national and subnational level – is now focusing on transportation. Modern passenger and freight transportation is one of the largest polluters all over the world. At the same time, it is one of the sectors most difficult to decarbonize. In Costa Rica itself, transportation accounts for some 2/3 of carbon/greenhouse gas emissions.
Using incentives and subsidies for cleaner vehicles, particularly electric mode of public and personal transportation, the state and city authorities aim to greening and decarbonizing. Skilful recalibration of gasoline taxing and road-tolls could be one of the solutions.
Of course, the easiest way to get to carbon neutrality is to introduce carbon quotas by limiting fossil fuels consumption.
However, it has to be reconciled with current technological possibilities to switch to electric solutions. Batteries, time, recharging mode and speed, dispersion and availability of sockets as well as the weight and price of batteries are some of the challenges not only to Costa Rica but even for the world’s technological champions.
On the other hand, as the country’s economy grows, demands for the old-fashioned internal combustion engine)cars is rising. In 2017, for every newborn baby, two new cars were registered (in contrast to a total of 120 new electric cars). For over 60% of the population diesel fueled bases, cars and locomotives are daily choice of commuting. The country already ranks second in per capita emissions in Central America, which makes further electrification both a logical choice and urgent necessity.
Elsewhere in the world, governments are also struggling with how to balance financial means and the tasks; driving habits and curbing emissions, consumeristic social styles with future imperatives, but it seems Costa Rica is braver and going further than most. Therefore, its greening of politics, energy, economy and international conduct is something to monitor and learn from.
Sinta Stepani is an international relations specialist based in Sao Paulo, Brazil