While the UN unveils another devastating report on biodiversity loss, showing the threat from humanity to the rest of life on earth, and as countries puzzle over how to meet their international carbon targets and respond to declarations of climate emergency, the small Central American nation of Costa Rica has leapt ahead.

In 2007, the President, Oscar Arias Sanchez, announced that his country would mark the bicentenary of its independence from Spain in 2021 by going carbon neutral,and it has already made great strides towards achieving that. By 2015, Costa Rica generated 99% of its electricity from renewable sources (80% from hydropower and 11.5% from wind generation), and in 2017 the country’s grid ran on 100% renewable energy for 300 days. Costa Rica also attracted $1.9 billion in new-build clean energy investment between 2010-2017. These steps gained enormous publicity globally and Costa Rica quickly became the poster child for green energy production.

There have, of course, been setbacks: emissions have continued to grow – particularly from private transport – and interim administrations have re-examined its ambitious plan and moved the deadlines first forward to 2085, and then back to 2021. Recently, in February 2019, the current president Carlos Alvarado unveiled the detailed 2050 National Decarbonisation Plan (NDP). This is a long‑term roadmap for a transition away from fossil fuels and from more polluting ways of producing food and managing waste. A former UN climate chief and Costa Rican national, Christiana Figueres, led the presentation of the plan and called it “unprecedented” in international politics. They may be resetting some targets, but Costa Rica is still streets ahead of most countries in planning in detail how they will better align their lives and livelihoods with the tolerance levels of the biosphere.

By attempting to harness its natural resources sustainably, this small Central American country is outpacing many richer nations in reaching carbon reduction targets. But rapid transition to zero carbon will need to be very different for each country – and must take in wider issues than energy production and use alone. Costa Rica has been a stable democracy for 150 years, its constitution embraces the concept of wellbeing, its geography and climate are suitable for hydro and wind power generation, it has a strong eco-tourism economy and its people embrace a culture that prioritizes quality of life. All these elements feed into its success. Other nations will need to develop their own model for decarbonising, according to their own unique set of circumstances. And this, in fact, is one of the important lessons of the Costa Rican experiment that would imply, for example, that a country like the United Kingdom, would make far great use of its abundant onshore windpower potential rather than effectively mothballing the industry.

Wider relevance

Costa Rica’s example holds important lessons for the rest of the world: it took a courageous, early stance based on the scientific evidence in 2007; it laid out a series of commitments to reducing carbon with ambitious goals that focused on the long-term avoidance of climate change. Their mission is to inspire people with a positive vision of what is possible.

In a statement to the UN in 2007, Costa Rica announced: “Costa Rica has decided to respond and align its national priorities with global climate action. The Government has prepared a far-reaching climate change strategy and is committed to becoming a carbon-neutral (C-neutral) country. We aspire to build a society whose pursuit of well-being does not reduce or risk the well-being of others.” In the words of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, “we do this with the hope that, eventually, we will be able to show the world that what ultimately needs to be done, can be done. As a small country, this is Costa Rica’s important contribution to the climate change issue.”

At the February 2019 launch of the country’s plan to decarbonise the economy, Costa Rica’s environment minister, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, said that if the plan is achieved, his grandchildren in 2035 will have the same carbon footprint as his grandparents did in the 1940s – and by 2050 his grandchildren will have none at all.

This firm position helped to galvanise government, industry and the population around clear targets and is a route more governments should take if they expect people to follow their lead. The country has already invested in eco tourism, which plays a major role in the economy, and reforested large areas that were destroyed earlier in the 20th Century. Its geography and climate offered huge opportunities for hydro power using a series of dams throughout the country. These are not without their critics – for damaging local biodiversity and affecting communities – and the government recently lost a court battle to build a dam in the Terrana River Valley for exactly these reasons.

As time has moved on, and electricity generation (accounting for 30% of total energy use) became successfully decarbonised, the difficulties of removing carbon from the rest of the economy became more apparent. Policy is now focusing on decarbonising transport and the current National Decarbonization Plan envisions electric passenger and freight trains in service by 2022, when current President Carlos Alvarado leaves office. Under the plan, nearly a third of all buses would be electric by 2035 (see our electric bus case study), dozens of charging stations would be built, and nearly all cars and buses on the roads would be electric by 2050. As the first Latin American country to assess the energy impacts of electrifying the transport sector, Costa Rica’s approaches could be scaled up and replicated across Central America.Through high level workshops, trainings and discussion of international best practices, a current World Bank project is currently helping to make this happen.

If successful, Costa Rica’s experience with replacing its cars, trains, and buses with low-carbon alternatives may indeed serve as a model. In the US, the move away from fossil fuel-based electricity is already underway and at least 100 cities have made commitments to move away from fossil fuels. Work at Stanford University produced scenarios whereby every state in the US could be 80-85% renewable by 2030 and 100% by 2050.

Other countries that have made significant steps to decarbonise their economies include Portugal, where data from the Portuguese Association of Renewable Energy shows that renewable energy sources met about 55.1% of Portugal’s electricity demand for 2018. Renewable power plants saved the country an estimated EUR 1.27 billion (USD 1.46m) in fossil fuel imports and reduced emissions by 6 million tonnes carbon dioxide (CO2). Denmark meanwhile, led the way globally in renewable production for many years, with an enlightened policy framework that began in 1983, and impressive targets to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent in 2020 compared to 1990 levels. In 2017, wind power provided 43.4% of Danish electricity. Uruguay has committed to derive 94.5% of its electricity from renewable energy. Even Saudi Arabia – the ultimate petro-state – recently signalled an end to oil addiction in its Vision 2030 plan. Since 2013, the world has been adding more renewable energy capacity than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. But there is still far to go.

The world is watching Costa Rica and badly wants them to succeed. “If we can’t pull it off by 2050, it’s likely no other country can pull it off,” said Francisco Alpízar, an economist at the Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education Center in Turrialba, Costa Rica and a climate adviser to the government. “That would be really bad.”

Context and background

The uptake of renewable energy globally is confounding claims that countries cannot rise to the challenge of substituting fossil fuels, overcome problems of infrastructure and expand at scale and speed. Increasingly, approaches to community ownership are also broadening the spread of economic benefits and raising enthusiasm for transition. Around the world, increasing proliferation and the declining costs of renewables is making them an even more economically viable option than fossil fuel extraction. In early 2017, the International Energy Agency noted that renewables were growing 13% more between 2015 and 2021 than they did in the previous year’s forecast, with the costs expected to drop by a quarter in the field of solar PV and 15 percent for onshore wind. In Costa Rica, the rapid transition to renewable energy has been helped by the high level of rainfall which increased the potential of hydropower in the country, especially in 2014/15 when Costa Rica managed to make their big leap forward.

Costa Rica’s culture encourages the treatment of the environment as a top priority. Already, it has managed to achieve the highest combined life expectancy and life satisfaction relative to ecological footprint in an international ranking. Its national slogan of “pura vida” – the pure life – is not just for show; the country is famous for its pristine environment and impressive bio-diversity, which it uses to attract eco tourism. Costa Rica has eco-climates ranging from long stretches of undeveloped coastline to towering volcanoes, from dense jungles and rainforests to lush valleys, and from waters teeming with exotic marine life to inland lakes, streams, and rivers with cascading waterfalls. With such impressive natural abundance, it is not difficult for its citizens to understand the importance of preserving it.

Enabling factors

Home to 4.8 million people, Costa Rica has long punched above its weight on climate change policy and action, and has produced many leaders who have promoted aggressive, progressive environmental policies on the international stage. Former President José María Figueres served on United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Advisory Group on Climate Change and Energy. His younger sister, Christiana Figueres, was executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – and oversaw the negotiation of the 2015 Paris climate agreement – and continues to play a high profile role in raising awareness about climate change. Costa Rica is also committed to a path of peace and wellbeing; the country has had no army since 1948 and in 1994 amended its constitution to include a right to a healthy environment for its citizens.

The importance placed on the environment is reflected in the organisation of its government. “When you have the ministries of energy and environment in the same house you can make big leaps forward. Same person, same agency,” says Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, Minister of Environment and Energy for Costa Rica.

The current priority to revolutionise Costa Rica’s transport system is partly driven by the fact that half the nation’s cars are more than two decades old and badly polluting. Yet demand for cars is rising: more than 60% of the country commutes by diesel buses or trains, and transportation still accounts for 60% of greenhouse gas emissions. There are plans to improve public transport and boost the number of electric cars through improved access to credit and economic incentives. A pledge to do so was made in the country’s nationally determined contribution (NDC) submitted in advance of the Paris Agreement. Fuel change will be vital, because in February 2019 Costa Rica extended until 2050 the moratorium on oil exploration and exploitation, for both its continental and marine territory. The current oil moratorium was established in 2002 by then President Abel Pacheco, and later extended by the governments of Laura Chinchilla and Luis Guillermo Solís.

Scope and evidence

  • In 2007, the Costa Rican president, Oscar Arias Sanchez, announced that his country would mark the bicentenary of its independence from Spain in 2021 by going carbon neutral.
  • By 2015, Costa Rica generated 99% of its electricity from renewable sources – 80% from hydropower and 11.5% from wind generation.
  • In 2017 the country’s grid ran on 100% renewable energy for 300 days.
    The 1st Country Carbon Program Neutrality 1.0, launched in 2012 with a national strategy and an action plan, to encourage private companies to adopt practices to reduce their emissions and compensate for their footprint.
  • In February 2019, the current president Carlos Alvarado unveiled the detailed 2050 National Decarbonisation Plan (NDP). This is a long‑term roadmap for a transition away from fossil fuels and from more polluting ways of producing food and managing waste. Costa Rica’s environment minister, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, said that if the plan is achieved, his grandchildren in 2035 will have the same carbon footprint as his grandparents did in the 1940s – and by 2050 his grandchildren will have none at all.
  • The country passed a breakthrough law in 2018 to promote electric vehicles through improved access to credit and economic incentives. The move has set the stage to decarbonize the transport sector which currently accounts for 60% of its greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Former Costa Rican President José María Figueres served on United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Advisory Group on Climate Change and Energy. His younger sister, Christiana Figueres, led the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – the group that convened the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Lessons for rapid transition

  1. Finding the best pathway to rapid transition involves countries working with their unique pattern of resources, and taking a strong stance inspires others to follow your lead and attracts investment.
  2. Policy, infrastructure and culture need to go hand in hand to make rapid transitions happen.
  3. Even countries with less historical responsibility for tackling climate change can show real leadership, and leave others with greater culpability running to catch up.

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