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Kate Zerrenner headshot

In Costa Rica, ‘Pura Vida’ Also Means Climate Action

While other nations can look to Costa Rica as a leading example of sustainable development, there are challenges its neighbors’ leaders should consider.
By Kate Zerrenner
Costa Rica

It literally means "pure life," and pura vida is also a common greeting across Costa Rica. One could also say pura vida applies to this country's push to tackle climate change.

Costa Rica is an undisputed leader in climate action in Central America, having established a goal to reach net zero emissions by 2050, with several interim goals across many sectors that focus on resilience as well as mitigation. For example, the country has set targets for all newly built commercial, residential, and public buildings to be energy-efficient and climate-resilient, including the use of renewables for cooking and the heating of water.

These goals are ambitious and laudable, and they stand out in the region. Costa Rica itself is both small in land mass and population (5 million), but it is politically and economically stable with a relatively high standard of living. The country has long been a leader in ecotourism, and to underscore that as an economically viable economic strategy, Costa Rica’s leadership and its citizens have been bold in pursuing sustainable development across many sectors.

While other countries in Latin American and the Caribbean can and should look to Costa Rica as a leading example of sustainable development, there are challenges that its neighbors’ leaders should consider. As countries prepare for the COP26 summit in Glasgow later this year, Costa Rica’s experience offers several lessons.

Progress on renewables, but future challenges await

Costa Rica’s renewable energy goals are laudable, and in 2020, the country met its 2030 goal of operating its electric grid 100 percent with renewable energy. According to the Costa Rican government, 20 of the country’s largest electricity consumers have reduced their consumption by 25 percent, and a national energy efficiency law is under development. Significant opportunities for energy efficiency in the residential and commercial sectors still exist, and now they are often the cheapest and cleanest first approach.

There are two concerns with Costa Rica’s clean energy goals: the lack of a diverse energy portfolio and ongoing challenges with transportation fuels. Hydropower provides about 70 percent of the country’s electricity. It could never have met its renewable energy target this early without relying on hydropower, but at the same time, reliance on one source that requires substantial infrastructure is risky in and of itself. In 2019, the country was gripped by drought, and despite its ability to keep hydropower plants running, that challenge underscored that in order to keep power generation reliable, Costa Rica likely needs about twice the installed capacity for normal electricity demands.

Lake Arenal in the northern highlands of Costa Rica
Lake Arenal in the northern highlands of Costa Rica (Image credit: Antonio López/Pixabay

Further, depending on how a hydropower dam is designed and constructed and its generating capacity, hydropower can cease to be considered as a clean renewable resource. In fact, newer facilities typically create their own problems in the short term. The primary challenge is the decomposition of organic matter in newly flooded reservoirs, which results in the emissions of methane and carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, in tropical countries such as Costa Rica, when the level of organic materials are high, dams in turn increasingly release potent greenhouse gases. Methane, in particular, is especially potent in the short term, potentially releasing more pollutants than a coal-fired power plant.

Costa Rica says it is trying to diversify its power generation portfolio. Wind power now contributes about 17 percent of the country’s electricity, which proved beneficial during the 2019 drought as the same winds that contributed to drought conditions helped turn wind turbines.

Geothermal generates roughly 13 percent of the country’s electricity, but biomass and solar combined provide less than 1 percent, which, when considering that the price of solar has dropped 89 percent over the past ten years, presents more opportunities to invest in an electricity portfolio with a wider range of sources.

To that end, with its new commitments, Costa Rica appears poised to increase its solar generation. As other Latin American and Caribbean countries look to Costa Rica for inspiration in climate goals, a diverse energy portfolio is important, as well as monitoring those aforementioned downstream emissions from the country’s hydropower infrastructure.

Transportation a huge challenge for Costa Rica in the coming decade

Another area of concern in the accounting for greenhouse gas emissions lies within Costa Rica’s transportation sector. Although the country has met its goal for generating 100 percent of its electricity through renewables, the demand for fossil fuels within the transportation sector continues to grow.

Currently, Costa Rica has limited public transportation options. There are 287 cars per 1,000 people, more than the global and Latin American average, and less than 2 percent of those cars are hybrid or electric. Under the government’s recent decarbonization plan, however, the government aims to have a zero emissions public transportation system by 2050. Developing a more sustainable transportation infrastructure presents a difficult challenge, yet a critical one if the country can meet its long-term climate goals. Nevertheless, there are incentives: According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Latin American could save $621 billion by 2050 if energy and transport sectors reach zero emissions.

The reality is that a significant portion of transportation emissions are out of Costa Rica’s hands. However, they play an important role in regional emissions, especially as travel rebounds post-pandemic. Emissions from airlines and cruise ships arriving into Costa Rica are not easily accounted for. As such travel is almost entirely international, determining any such carbon accounting is complicated.

Airline emissions in particular present a looming challenge. Considerable strides have been made in fuel efficiency and aircraft design, and the goals set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the standards body for that sector, along with the efforts by airline manufacturers themselves, together have helped bring the industry more in line with others. However, while domestic aviation is included in national carbon accounting, the Paris Climate Agreement did not address international aviation. This cannot be dealt with by one country alone.

Emissions from cruise ships pose a whole other challenge. While the global shipping and logistics sector has been part of international climate negotiations, the cruise industry has set its own emissions reductions, which have largely meant that while the global shipping sector is starting to take action on its emissions, most passenger cruise lines have chosen to install scrubbers and continue to use the same conventional, and polluting, fuel. Those scrubbers come with environmental concerns of their own. And much like international air travel, Costa Rica cannot alone address the emissions from cruise ships that dock in its ports.

Costa Rica – a small country, but a model of sustainable development with outsized impact

Costa Rica stands as a model of a country that has built its brand around its environmentalism. The country still faces steep challenges, but its ambitious climate goals can serve as an example for other small nations to figure out a pathway for a decarbonized future. Its standing in the international community gives it a voice, which is could use to help address additional concerns, like international travel, that directly affect its environment. The country’s leadership has shown its willingness to address hard questions, like tackling its domestic transportation sector As countries prepare for the international climate negotiations later this year, small countries like Costa Rica have an opportunity to lead and drive the global climate action conversation.

Image credit: Delphine Beausoleil/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner