Costa Rica enjoys widespread international fame for being one of the “greenest” countries on earth. The small Central American state has repeatedly been praised for its outstanding efforts in combating climate change, for its reforestation efforts and for generating almost all its electricity from renewable energy sources. Though the government has adopted an ambitious economic plan to make the country carbon neutral by the middle of the century, “green” policies are sometimes not as rosy as they seem. Rebecca Bertram reports from San José.
True, the electricity figures are impressive: Costa Rica is one of very few countries in the world generating more than 98 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources. In 2018, renewable sources broke down to 72 percent hydropower, 16 percent wind, 9 percent geothermal, 0.8 percent biomass and a tiny portion of just 0.1 percent solar. Undeniably this is impressive.
But as with all energy transitions we have to look at the bigger picture. As Costa Rica’s electricity has been generated predominantly by hydropower, the country has had to make only a relatively small effort to ensure this sector is renewable. However, electricity generation makes up only a fraction of the nation’s total energy consumption. In fact, most of the nation’s energy depends on fossil fuels.
Energy is the biggest source of carbon emissions in Costa Rica, responsible for some 65 percent, so it makes sense to decarbonize the energy sector. The biggest chunk here is the transportation sector, responsible for about 42 percent of all energy related carbon emissions. It is therefore vital for Costa Rica to address this particular sector if it is serious about further tackling climate change and becoming carbon neutral by 2050.
Costa Rican policy makers have taken note of this elephant in the room, and at the heart of President Alvarado Quesada’s environmental policies lies an impressive decarbonization strategy for the country’s transport sector that – if you ask me – looks more like a blue-print for a developed than for a developing country. The plan, announced earlier this year, entails several very ambitious targets for metropolitan areas, such as the capital, San José. Calling for all buses and taxis there to be carbon neutral by 2050 (Uber and rivals aren’t mentioned), it aims for a functioning public transportation system to become the main source of mobility, largely replacing private cars.
Already one can imagine two areas where the difficulties with this strategy will lie. Firstly, nudging people to use public transportation requires a change in culture. In terms of mobility: in 2016, twice as many new cars were registered in Costa Rica than babies were born. The public transport buses are largely run on diesel fuel. They work fine but I was made a laughing-stock when wanting to get around San José by bus or take the train to travel to the nearby university town Cartago; Costa Rican friends worried about my general safety.
It will take some serious convincing and improvement of the public transport to change the public perception of new mobility options. The government should start engaging Costa Ricans at an early stage in their transport strategy to ensure success. Thirty years is not much time to change a culture.
The second difficulty stems from uncertainty over where the additional electricity should come from if large parts of the transport sector are electrified. For one, hydropower, according to experts, is largely at its peak, so the country needs to look elsewhere especially since droughts are becoming more common and threaten the steady supply of electricity from hydrodams.
For another, only 0.1 percentage of electricity is generated by solar power, internationally referred to as the “oil of this millennium”. In a regional comparison, Costa Rica falls surprisingly far behind its Central American neighbours in this respect. The reason can be found in the reluctance of Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad – ICE), the country’s state-owned electricity provider, to encourage an electricity system and a policy based on distributed solar generation. Instead, it favours building large, centralized ocean power stations because they are more easily integrated into existing electricity systems.
Turning to the sun
Interestingly, however, solar power could prove a solution to overcome both these hurdles. Though a tiny sliver of today’s energy production pie, encouraging its growth could trigger a cultural change by giving people the power to participate in the energy transition and generate clean electricity, thereby taking an active interest in the country’s green revolution. And solar power could help provide the surplus electricity to power tomorrow’s transport system.
I left Costa Rica feeling both impressed and surprised. Impressed by its ambitious climate goals. Surprised because I did not meet the green champion I had heard so much about. The next few years will be decisive but challenging for the country. It will have to implement a socially and economically sound energy transition to improve not just the quality of life and open new transport options for all Costa Ricans, but also engage with them directly as they travel together on this important journey.