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 make it the first carbon-neutral nation in the world by 2021, on the 200th anniversary of its independence.

“Decarbonisation 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 2018 inauguration speech. ”We have the titanic task of abolishing the use of fossil fuels in our economy to make way for the use of clean and renewable energies.”

Costa Rica’s story is not without its faults, but it presents an interesting answer, if a partial one, to the dilemma the world faces in attempting to harness the greenhouse gases that threaten to wreak havoc, particularly on tropical island nations including Indonesia, the Philippines, much of the Caribbean and other areas. Alvarado, at age 38, represents a new generational paradigm more attuned to action than the ageing leaders in the developed world.  

Many commentators interpreted Alvarado’s decision as an outright ban of fossil fuels. Not quite true.  Costa Rica does not have legislation in place restricting 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.

The country’s 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 forthcoming carbon sequestration technologies.

Ambitiously aiming for carbon neutrality by 2021, the Central American state is signalling 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 hopes for 95 percent by 2020, but most probably will miss it.

Costa Rica’s climate change agenda began with a change of leadership.

“Our crisis cannot be environmental… Deep and structural, this must be a crisis of our cognitivity. Thus, the latest Climate Change (CC) Report is only seemingly on climate. It is actually a behaviorist study on (the developmental dead end of) our other ‘CC’ – competition and confrontation, instead of cooperation and consensus,” said Anis H. Bajrektarevic, Research Fellow at the Institute for Modern Political- history analyses, who concluded: “a cognitive mind can do it all.”

Home to fewer than 5 million people, Costa Rica has long played above its weight on climate change policy formulation, norm setting and instrument formulations as well as on implementation policies and practical action. The nation has produced echelons of leaders in all generational cohorts who have promoted vigorous and progressive environmental policies at home and on the international stage.

Former President José María Figueres served as 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 – a most important instrument after FCCC’s Kyoto Protocol.

As curiously as foresightedly, Costa Rica has had no standing army) for more than seven decades – ever since 1948. Moreover, by 1994 the country amended its constitution to embody the right to 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, the country went 300 days using only renewable energy. As of December 2018, 98.15 percent of electricity is produced from water, wind, geothermal energy, biomass and the sun (thermal and photovoltaic). In 2015, it managed to generate 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources for 299 days. In 2016, it ran for 271 days and in 2017 for 300 days without using fossil fuels.

According to the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity, the country generates most of its electricity, around 99 percent, From a variety of sources including hydropower (78 percent), wind (10 percent), geothermal energy (10 percent), biomass (1 percent) and solar (1 percent).

However, there is still a lot to do. Almost 70 percent of the country’s (non-electricity) energy consumption still comes for the PEM composed of fossil fuels. Transport heavily leans on petrol while natural gas is still widely used for cooking and smaller vehicles.

Greening politics and economy, rethinking transport 

In order to meet the domestic and Paris Agreement targets on carbon neutrality by 2021, Costa Rica, on national and subnational levels, is now focusing on transportation. Modern passenger travel and freight transport are among the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gases. At the same time it is one of the sectors most difficult to decarbonize. In Costa Rica itself, transportation accounts for some two-thirds of carbon/green-house gas emissions.

Using incentives and subsidies for cleaner vehicles, particularly electric modea of public and personal transportation, the state and city authorities aim to greening and decarbonizing. Skilful recalibration of petrol taxing and road-tolls could be one of the solutions.

The easiest way to get to carbon neutrality is to introduce carbon quotas by limiting fossil fuels consumption. However, that has to be reconciled with current technological possibilities to switch to electric solutions. Battery life, recharging modes and speed of recharging, dispersion and availability of charging facilities as well as the weight and price of batteries are some of the challenges for years if not decades to come, not only to Costa Rica but even for the world’s technological champions. 

On the other hand, as the country’s economy grows, demand for old-fashioned  internal combustion cars is rising. In 2017, for every newborn baby on the island, two new cars were registered (in contrast to only 120 new electric cars). For over 60 percent of the population, diesel fuelled buses, cars and locomotives comprise the daily commute choice. 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, consumer social styles with future imperatives, but it seems Costa Rica is going braver and further than most. Therefore, its greening of politics, energy, economy and international conduct is worth to closely monitor and learn from.

Sinta Stepani is an international relations specialist based in São Paulo, Brazil.