Bicycle activists pedal through San José while on organized ride to promote alternative transportation. (Photo by Lindsay Fendt)
Ask Costa Ricans what it’s like to drive in their country’s capital city of San José during rush hour and they’ll tell you about interminable waits, choking exhaust fumes and impossibly narrow streets. Since 2006 there have been more new cars registered in Costa Rica than people born, yet the capital’s cramped streets and lumbering buses haven’t been updated in decades. The navigation app Waze ranked the city as the worst for driving in all of Latin America.
Carlos Alvarado, Costa Rica’s new president, aims to end this state of affairs, in part by bringing electric-train service to the greater metropolitan area. But that plan, more than just a means of addressing traffic jams, is part of a major push toward the country’s ambitious goal of becoming carbon neutral—an objective Alvarado placed front and center in his inaugural speech last May.
“Decarbonization is the great task of our generation, and Costa Rica needs to be one of the first, if not the first, to achieve it,” Alvarado said. “We can do it thanks to our clean and renewable electricity matrix, but it will need a decided and coordinated effort from everyone in society to accelerate this process.”
As presidents Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Donald Trump of the United States backpedal on their countries’ commitments to fight climate change, Alvarado appears determined to do all possible to propel Costa Rica toward its goal of carbon neutrality. Members of his administration say an important step in that direction will come on Feb. 24, when the new government plans to release a comprehensive plan to decarbonize the economy. While there is no official deadline for Costa Rica to become carbon neutral, the plan is expected to spell out a series of steps extending to 2050.
Costa Rica’s audacious goal has won the small, middle-income country worldwide attention since it was announced in 2010 by then-President Oscar Arias, who set a 2021 target for achieving it. And thanks largely to steps the country took well before Arias’s pledge, the country appears better positioned than most to make such an attempt. Its electrical grid, for instance, already is powered almost entirely by renewable energy—the vast majority of it hydroelectricity, but with important contributions from wind and geothermal power as well.
And the impressive woodland conservation and reforestation Costa Rica has carried out in recent decades has given it extensive tracts of protected forestland to serve as carbon sinks.
At the same time, though, the country has bumped up against a daunting climate-policy hurdle: the transportation sector and its overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels. Despite the near-elimination of carbon-based sources of electric-power generation, the country’s overall CO2 emissions have kept on increasing due to ongoing growth in the number of gasoline- and diesel-fueled vehicles.
The problem has gone largely unaddressed despite the 2010 carbon-neutrality pledge. When Arias set that goal, he was leaving office and had produced no roadmap for reaching it. The two presidents that came after him, first Laura Chinchilla, then Luis Guillermo Solís, took some steps towards carbon neutrality. For instance, they pushed private companies to cut carbon use and began an extensive analysis of the country’s forests to gauge how much carbon they could remove from the atmosphere—a key variable in the carbon-neutrality calculus. But neither administration made significant progress aside from continuing work on already-planned hydropower and reforestation projects.
In fact, Costa Rica’s fossil-fuel use has done nothing but climb since the Arias pledge, mainly because rising incomes and an aging public transit system have spurred a steep increase in car ownership starting in 2004. That’s why the country’s progress toward carbon neutrality in many ways hinges on transformation of the transportation sector, which according to the World Bank accounts for nearly 70% of all Costa Rican fuel combustion that produces greenhouse-gas emissions.
Unsurprisingly, Arias’s 2021 carbon-neutrality deadline has seemed increasingly unrealistic even though it continues to be invoked. In 2017, Solís publicly reaffirmed the deadline in a speech in Dubai and on social media. And Alvarado even has publicly stated support for the 2021 goal. But behind closed doors, Costa Rican authorities have made plain that carbon neutrality is unattainable in such short order. During the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris in 2015, the Solís administration quietly bumped Costa Rica’s carbon-neutrality target to 2100. Though Alvarado himself hasn’t spoken publicly about a later deadline, others in his administration have.
“We aren’t going for the 2021 carbon neutrality goal,” Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, the country’s environment minister, told EcoAméricas on Dec. 14. (See Q&A —this issue.) “It’s impossible to achieve it. What we do have is a plan to decarbonize within 30 to 40 years by using a mechanism to transition different sectors to electricity.”
Despite the mixed messages this and earlier administrations have sent about when Costa Rica aims to be carbon neutral, Alvarado is confronting the problem of greenhouse-gas emissions more aggressively and comprehensively than Chinchilla and Solís did. In January, the government launched a raft of initiatives to raise consumer and business awareness of climate protection. These range from technology fairs to showcase greenhouse-gas-reduction methods to “environmentally friendly” family days in San José aimed at boosting use and appreciation of city parks.
But a more revealing indication of the new administration’s commitment to climate protection is expected in next month’s launch of a decarbonization plan. Though details of the plan have yet to be released, Environment Ministry officials say it will address every sector of the economy, ranging from agriculture to industry. They say the government will place particular emphasis on weaning the transport sector from fossil fuels, and they hope to make the metro-region train project a centerpiece of that effort. To that end the government has been working to secure US$1.2-$3 billion for the project, with possible funding sources including multilateral banks and the Green Climate Fund, officials say.
The challenge of broad decarbonization, daunting though it may be, might fairly be seen as less steep in Costa Rica than in many other countries. An important reason is the already strong role of renewables in generating electric power. In the last five years, the country has consistently produced over 95% of its electricity from renewable sources. In 2017, its grid ran for 300 days in a row using only renewable electricity—thanks largely to hydropower, which has long been the country’s principal source of electricity and currently accounts for over 70%.
While other Central American nations also rely mainly on hydropower, Costa Rica possesses 100% electricity penetration, which means virtually every home in the country has access to electricity. So while the country needs to scale up power production to accommodate population growth and the switching of transportation, industry and other sectors from fossil fuels to electricity, it does not have to bring electricity to large numbers of existing homes that lack it. That’s not the case for some of its neighbors. In Nicaragua, for example, 20% of the population lacks access to electricity.
Also setting Costa Rica apart is its success in forest conservation. In the 1990s, after nearly a century of rapid deforestation, the country dramatically overhauled its environmental-management strategy to focus on forest and wildlife conservation. The change, aimed at boosting tourism and positioning the country to participate in the carbon-storage market, prompted a strong rebound in the nation’s forest cover, which expanded from 21% in 1987 to over 52% in 2010. That share is still growing, thanks to public and private conservation efforts, and to tree-planting programs. Costa Rica is now the only country in Central America in which the total forest cover is not shrinking. Officials say that in order for Costa Rica to reach carbon neutrality, it will need to count on woodland carbon storage to help offset greenhouse-gas emissions.
“Not only can we do [tree planting], it’s essential to do it,” says Katy VanDusen, the coordinator for Corclima, an environmental group in the northwestern Costa Rican mountain town of Monteverde that focuses on climate change. “In the last 35 years about two million trees have been planted, and we are still going.”
But experts agree that while Costa Rica has a head start in clean power and forest conservation, it faces the same uphill climb many other countries do in curbing carbon use in such sectors as manufacturing, agriculture and transportation. “We’ve already done the hardest part and we’ve done it with our own resources,” Rodríguez, the environment minister, says. “But funding what we still need to do is going to be difficult.”
Indeed, such work is expensive. Since 2010, Costa Rica has been running sizable budget deficits that now amount to 5.4% of GDP, making it hard to find public funding for initiatives such as transit-infrastructure improvements and the scaling up of electric-vehicle-purchasing incentives. Complicating matters is the fact that 22% of the national government’s revenue comes from taxes on the very fossil fuels it hopes to phase out.
Still, Costa Rica has managed to lay emissions-reduction groundwork by using money previously earmarked for infrastructure and raising funds from international sources. In the farm sector, for instance, the country is engaging in greenhouse-gas-reduction efforts known in world climate-policy circles as Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs). Under one such initiative, a pilot funded with US$7.4 million from the European Union, researchers engaged with 600 coffee producers to reduce carbon emissions and water use by installing biodigesters and water recycling systems. Authorities plan to extend the effort to cattle ranches and eventually to the country’s entire farm sector in what the United Nations describes as the world’s first agricultural NAMA.
Officials acknowledge that progress in controlling transportation-sector emissions is particularly important given their relative weight in the country’s overall greenhouse-gas-emissions picture. Of the 8.78 million tons of greenhouse gases emitted in Costa Rica in 2010, 4.67 million tons came from cars, trucks, vessels and airplanes, the government says.
In 2013, then-Environment Minister René Castro referred to transportation as the “Achilles heel” of Costa Rica’s carbon-neutrality plans. To many at the time, the situation seemed hopeless, but the last few years have seen a surge in private- and public-sector-led efforts to make transport in Costa Rica greener.
An example is VanDusen’s group in Monteverde, Corclima, which has partnered with a national environmental group, Costa Rica Limpia, to install electric-vehicle charging stations along the route to Monteverde.
The two organizations also are pressing rental car agencies to begin adding electric cars to their fleets. Because Monteverde is nestled in a cloud forest at the end of one of Costa Rica’s worst roads, VanDusen hopes that reaching it in an electric vehicle can provide an example to the rest of the country. Says VanDusen: “If you can get to Monteverde with an electric car, you can get anywhere in an electric car.”
Another example is Ad Astra, a space-technology company founded by former Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang and which operates in the United States and Costa Rica. The company is helping to guide efforts to provide hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered buses for Costa Rica. It also plans to develop hydrogen production and fueling stations in the country—thanks in part to President Alvarado’s signing, on his first day in office, of an executive order making hydrogen an officially sanctioned alternative fuel source.
Liquid hydrogen production requires a great deal of electricity, but José Castro, Ad Astra’s science director, says the carbon footprint will be small since the power will be drawn from the country’s largely fossil-fuel-free grid. “We have to attack transportation,” Castro says. “According to the vision that the president has for decarbonizing the country, hydrocarbons seem to have no place.”
- Lindsay Fendt
Index image: Wind turbines like these, above the San José suburb of Santa Ana, account for over 16% of Costa Rica’s electric-power generation. (Photo by Lindsay Fendt)