Costa Rica Poised to Become World's First Fossil Fuel-Free Country

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Clean electricity production rules in Costa Rica. The nation's fossil fuel-dependent transportation sector, however, is a whole other story. (Photo: Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images)

Dutifully picking up where his carbon neutrality-aspiring predecessor left off, newly elected Costa Rica President Carlos Alvarado made quite the pledge at his inauguration ceremony last year: by 2021 — the year of Costa Rica's bicentennial — the preternaturally happy Central American nation will have completely weaned itself off the use of fossil fuels.

Almost a year later, Alvarado signed a decree in February 2019 to fully decarbonize by the year 2050 with no mention of his previous, lofty goal of being carbon neutral by 2021. Nonetheless, the goal is still admirable, and if accomplished will be the first in the world.

"Decarbonisation is the great task of our generation and Costa Rica must be one of the first countries in the world to accomplish it, if not the first," proclaimed Alvarado, a 38-year-old former journalist and member of the left-leaning Citizens' Action Party (PAC), in 2018. "We have the titanic and beautiful task of abolishing the use of fossil fuels in our economy to make way for the use of clean and renewable energies."

For Costa Rica, with its ironclad conservation laws and booming ecotourism industry, reaching such a formidable goal within such a relatively short time frame may not seem entirely loco. After all, the country is famed for producing roughly 99 percent of its electricity using renewable sources — predominately hydropower but also solar, wind, biomass and geothermal. In 2018, Costa Rica broke its own record by using only clean energy for 300 consecutive days for the fourth year in a row. (By comparison, 66 percent of electricity in the United States comes from coal and natural and gas while roughly 15 percent comes from renewable sources. The remaining 19 percent is nuclear-sourced.)

Costa Rican president Carlos Alvarado
President Carlos Alvarado is dedicated to leading his already progressive country into an even cleaner and greener future. (Photo: Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images)

And for this, Costa Rica, a country of 5 million, deserves all the accolades thrown at it. But abolishing fossil fuels in just three short years isn't as effortless as it might appear when you consider the one area in which the ultra-progressive country isn't light-years ahead: transportation.

As reported by the Independent, public transportation is not one of Costa Rica's strong suits. In turn, gas- and diesel-powered private cars largely rule the road and are only growing in number. Per data from the country's National Registry, there were twice as many cars registered as babies born in 2016. The previous year, the Costa Rica's automobile industry grew a staggering 25 percent, making it one of the fastest-growing auto markets in Latin America.

With a weak public transportation network and a growing number of cars hitting the road, roughly two-thirds of Costa Rica's annual emissions come from transport. Still, Alvarado, who arrived at his own inauguration ceremony via a hydrogen-powered bus, is undaunted: "When we reach 200 years of independent life, we will take Costa Rica forward and celebrate ... that we've removed gasoline and diesel from our transportation," he proclaimed.

Core to Alvarado's campaign were promises to clean up and modernize Costa Rica's gasoline-reliant public transportation system, promote research into new, sustainable fuel sources and outlaw oil and gas exploration in the country. He also vowed to continue former President Luis Guillermo Solís' embrace of electric vehicles. (In 2016, hybrids and EVs represented less than 1 percent of the country's total vehicles.) The goal is to have a zero-emission public transportation system by 2035.

Downtown San Jose, Costa Rica
Downtown San Jose, Costa Rica. (Photo: Bernal Saborio/flickr)

Has realism taken a backseat?

While many experts applaud Costa Rica's ambitious goals, they point out that a fossil fuel-free transport sector is a long shot that may end up being more symbolic than anything. It can — and should — happen, just perhaps not in time.

"If there's no previous infrastructure, competence, affordable prices and waste management, we'd be leading this process to failure." Oscar Echeverría, president of the Vehicle and Machinery Importers Association, tells Reuters. "We need to be careful."

One considerable economic roadblock is the fact that, per Ministry of Treasury data, roughly 22 percent of the government's income currently comes from taxes on fossil fuels. Completely phasing out the import of the gasoline that a vast number of motorists depend on would, for example, force the debt-ridden government to radically rethink how and what it taxes. Again, not a negative but a dramatic shift nonetheless.

More aggressive taxes on carbon emissions seem an obvious path for the Alvarado administration to take to make up for the loss, although that too isn't so straightforward. As recently noted by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz:

Because Costa Rica is already so green, a carbon tax would not raise as much money as elsewhere. But, because virtually all of the country's electricity is clean, a shift to electric cars would be more effective in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Such a tax could help Costa Rica become the first country where electric cars dominate, moving it still closer to the goal of achieving a carbon-neutral economy.

And even if Costa Rica doesn't achieve such a miraculous feat by 2050, there's hope that other countries will take note and follow.

"Getting rid of fossil fuels is a big idea coming from a small country," economist Mónica Araya of Costa Rica Limpia explains to Reuters. "This is an idea that's starting to gain international support with the rise of new technologies. Tackling resistance to change is one of the most important tasks we have right now."