How Costa Rica Is Moving Toward a Green Economy

With nearly all of its electricity generated from renewables, Costa Rica has now set its sights on decarbonizing the transportation sector. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, green-energy activist Monica Araya explains how her country can wean itself entirely off fossil fuel.

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Santa Elena Reserve, Monteverde, Costa Rica

This story first appeared on Yale Environment 360.

Costa Rica has an impressive track record when it comes to renewable energy. The country, famous for its ecotourism industry, produces almost all of its electricity from renewable sources, with 80 percent coming from hydroelectric power. But Monica Araya wants her country to go even greener. Araya, the founder and director of Costa Rica Limpia — a citizen’s group that promotes renewable energy — is now pushing for the widespread adoption of electric vehicles in Costa Rica, all part of a vision of making her country one of the world’s first carbon-neutral nations.

Monica Araya

Monica Araya

“We need to help people understand that the reality of electric mobility is already here,” says Araya. “It’s not science fiction, it’s not something for the Finnish people or the Nordics.”

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Araya says that despite her nation’s green reputation, the fledgling effort to decarbonize Costa Rica’s transportation sector has encountered resistance in the federal legislature. But just as her country rejected cheap coal in the 1970s and instead turned to hydropower, she says, citizens must now launch a grassroots effort to support the rapid expansion of solar and wind power and the electrification of transportation. She also urged clean energy advocates throughout the world to press ahead with renewable energy initiatives, despite the pro-fossil fuel stance of the incoming Trump administration.

“If the U.S. doesn’t want to be part of the game, the game is going to continue,” says Araya, who earned a Ph.D. in environmental management from Yale University and has held numerous global environmental positions. “Clean energy’s going to continue. Electric mobility is going to continue… Costa Rica’s going to move forward.”

Yale Environment 360: You’ve said that it’s time to debunk the myth that a developing country has to choose between development and renewable energy. Make the case for that.

Monica Araya: Last century, we had this very distinct view that if you wanted to develop, you had to destroy the environment, you had to go for dirty energy, because it was cheaper and because you had to meet basic needs. We’re in a very different world, because now we understand that the price that we pay for dirty energy is very high. It harms development itself. We need to be far more ambitious in understanding the benefits of renewable energy, not just from a climate perspective, but from the perspective of health, quality of life, entrepreneurship, independence, and responsibility towards the next generation.

e360: You’ve said that you believe Costa Rica could be an inspiration to other developing nations. But isn’t the reason that Costa Rica has been able to almost completely cut out the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity is because of its particular geography, tropical rainfall, and hydropower?

Costa Rica’s story could have been different. It could have been the story of any developing country that goes for the short-term option.”

Araya: It is not just good luck. It is also an ability to think in the long term. There were some decisions in the 1970s that were very important, because the country was under a lot of pressure to go for dirty energy, such as coal. The pressure came from the IMF [International Monetary Fund] in Washington because it was cheaper. But there was a very clear sense that we wanted to use our own sources, and at the time hydro was just the easiest and clearest option because the water was ours. Coal, we would have to import. The story could have been different. It could have been the story of any developing country that goes for the short-term option. I think the underpinning rationale that shaped some of the decisions that now have paid off — for example, non-fossil fuel electricity generation, the creation of national parks — was the ability to think in the long term. It’s very tempting nowadays to just go for the short term, but [long-term thinking] is precisely what we need to preserve in order to take Costa Rica to the next level. There has been a very deliberate conversation around overdependence on hydropower. So there will be more investment in geothermal. There is growing investment in wind, and there is growing cultural support for solar. The dependence on hydropower is on the table. It’s not a taboo anymore.

e360: Hydropower can come with its own set of environmental costs. Is that part of the thinking now in Costa Rica regarding a push for other, non-hydro renewable energy sources?

Araya: I think we’re moving to a world where people want to be closer to energy. For example, if you ask a Costa Rican, “Would you want to have your electricity coming from your own solar panel?” the instinct is to say, “Yeah, of course.” I took a taxi the other day. The driver did not know I worked on these issues, and I said, “What would you like next year?” Then he says, “If I had more money, you know what I would love? I would love to have a solar panel on my house and have my own energy.” Imagine! I was almost about to hug him.

So it’s not so much that a person says, “Oh, you know I’m worried about the environmental impacts of hydropower.” I don’t think they are. But I think my work with citizens has shown that there is something really powerful about renewable energy, especially solar panels, capturing the imagination of people because, especially in an emerging economy, it’s aspirational, it signals modernization.

e360: You’re now pushing to decarbonize Costa Rica’s transportation system, and to that end, you’ve founded an organization called Costa Rica Limpia, or Costa Rica Clean. What is its game plan?

If we don’t get people on board, if we just wait for the Congress to be enlightened, it’s not going to work.

Araya: Costa Rica Limpia goes beyond the idea that what we want is simply demanding things from the government. We are beyond that point. What we need to do is address the cultural side of this and to say, “We need to help people understand that the reality of electric mobility is already here. It’s not science fiction, it’s not something for the Finnish people or the Nordics.” We are going to give them the opportunity to get in zero-fossil-fuel cars and drive them, and to actually internalize the idea that this is here. This is not a Tesla for some millionaire in Silicon Valley. If you want a Hyundai, for example, which is one of the most common brands in Costa Rica, you can actually go and get it. From the perspective of citizens, we want them to have that experience because we have noticed that is the same thing with solar panels. Once they see them, once they know that these things exist, it’s easier for them to say, “Okay, what can I do in order to get this?”

Meanwhile, we know that the [Costa Rican] Congress is having a very heated debate around an electric mobility bill that would reduce the taxes on these cars. The process was going well up until July. Then, completely unexpectedly, the law received 69 objections in one afternoon by one congressman, which goes to my point around vested interest. On the one hand, we have to get people on board, to realize that they can aspire to electric vehicles. At the same time, we also have to be very good at being on top of the game when it comes to Congress, because it’s very easy to kill the bill.

The strategy that some of the opposition has used is to put out there some ideas about electric mobility that are just not true. They have said that the range of these cars is very poor, that these cars are for millionaires, that you first need to do the infrastructure, which is not true because you charge the cars in your home.

One of the things that we did was to do a session in Congress. We basically said we are going to have five experts from different fields. We are going to talk about the top five myths about electric mobility and we’re going to make sure that you leave the room understanding this technology better. For example, another thing that they use to scare people is to tell them, “You know, the country has mountains, so this technology’s never going to work here.” So you have to say, “Hey, we’re going to show you a video of a person going up a hill with an electric car in Costa Rica, and we’re going to show you that by the time this person comes down the hill, the car is charged. It even has more electricity than when it went up.”

If we don’t get people to actually fight for this, if we don’t get people on board, if we just wait for the Congress to be enlightened and simply choose the right thing, it’s not going to work.

e360: There’s a petition now circulating that calls on President Obama to immediately transfer the remaining $2.5 billion pledged to the UN Green Climate Fund, the purpose of which is to help developing nations adapt to climate change and reduce their emissions. President-elect Trump has said that he intends to stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to UN global warming programs. If President Obama does not release the remaining $2.5 billion, how serious do you think the consequences will be if the U.S. doesn’t fulfill its pledge to this fund?

Once Trump realizes there are billions of dollars in this clean energy business, he won’t be able to unplug them.

Araya: I think the last eight years achieved something that was very difficult, which was for the U.S. to come to the table and be able to say, “Look, we have a very complicated congressional puzzle at home. It’s not going to get better. Within that complexity, we can offer this.”

Part of the deal was that the U.S. was going to offer reductions of carbon pollution at home, and Obama said, “I’m going to find a way of getting this done without getting [the U.S.] Congress involved.” At the same time, the other part of the bargain was that despite the Congress, somehow the U.S. was going to find a way of putting money out there for the Green Climate Fund. That allowed not only the process to move forward, but it also did something very important, which is to bring China on board. I don’t think there would be a Paris Climate Agreement without that bilateral framework.

Clearly, if now the new team comes to the UN and says, “You know what? We don’t care. We’re going to go back to how we were before, because frankly, we don’t care about the UN. We don’t believe in the system, and we don’t need to give you money” — this is not going to be ideal. But I refuse to engage in the argument that everything is lost, that the Paris Agreement doesn’t work, and that now we can’t do things at home. You have to make sure that a lot of the bilateral cooperation continues, maybe not on the basis of climate, but on the basis of energy and entrepreneurship and business collaborations.

But I am not part of the group of people who thinks that the U.S. can do whatever it wants with the world. This is not the world we live in anymore. If the U.S. doesn’t want to be part of the game, the game is going to continue. Clean energy’s going to continue. Electric mobility is going to continue. Elon Musk is going to move forward. Costa Rica’s going to move forward. Chile, China, India are going to move forward. Of course, it’s going to be a pain to have a U.S. president who is going to be provoking through Twitter and through terrible diplomacy, and it’s going to be painful to watch the U.S. shooting itself in the foot.

e360: You’ve written that it’s imperative to place the U.S. election in a larger picture than the Trump phenomenon.

Araya: Yes. If you look at, for example, Texas, there are 100,000 workers in Texas that work in the renewable energy economy. If you look at electric mobility and what Tesla is doing around the world, it’s going to happen. It’s money. It’s jobs. It’s investment. Tesla is an American thing. It’s not a Chinese thing.

I think what is very interesting about this Trump puzzle is that he will break his own promises. Once he starts realizing that there are billions of dollars involved in this clean energy and clean economy business, he won’t be able to simply unplug them. What I think will happen is that precisely because the clean energy economy’s moving, is winning hearts and minds, what will happen is that the fossil fuel industry will get very nasty, so we all have to be ready.

I’ll give you a very concrete example: Costa Rica has everything we need to make a transition to fossil-free transportation. It’s not a matter of technology. It’s a matter of sorting out the politics of transition. Yet, surprisingly, there is a group here that is advocating oil exploration in Costa Rica. Imagine. My point is that those interests are there, and in every single country, big and small, they want to preserve the life of fossil fuels. It is an industry that doesn’t want to die. I think in the end much of the difference will come not just from the politicians, but from the ability of citizens to be connected and form strategic coalitions that say, “No way, we’re not going to have that. This is going backwards. This is not going forward.”
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Diane Toomey, who conducted this interview, is a regular contributor to Yale Environment 360. Toomey is an award-winning public radio journalist who has worked at Marketplace, the World Vision Report, and Living on Earth, where she was the science editor. She currently is an associate researcher at the PBS science show NOVA.