What can we learn from Costa Rica?
Posted by Alison Vickers on 21 November 2018 at 9:01 am
The Central American nation has an impressive track record in green electricity generation and is seen by many as a world leader in terms of its environmental reputation. Indeed, Costa Rica is in many ways an exemplar in the green energy transition. Although it is uniquely placed to take advantage of hydroelectric power, the commitment to utilising renewable resources that surround us can, and should be attempted in higher latitudes.
Let’s start off with the facts. Costa Rica has generated 98.53% of its electricity from renewable sources over the past four years, using its rivers, volcanoes, wind and solar power. The remaining 1.47% of electricity from June 2014 to June 2018 derived from fossil fuels. In 2017, the nation marked a milestone by reaching 300 days in a row where its electric system ran on exclusively renewable sources.
But where does this green electricity come from? It turns out that currently over three quarters is produced by hydroelectric dams, with 10% coming from wind, 10% produced by geothermal energy and 0.84% from solar and biomass. This self-sufficiency was notably significant during October 2017 when ‘Storm Nate’ passed through the country. During this time, Costa Rica managed to continue renewable electricity generation which it then exported to neighbouring countries in need.
The Costa Rican Institute of Electricity (ICE) isn’t stopping there, with plans afoot to add new geothermal plants to meet increasing demand from its citizens. The state-owned energy body strives to “promote and strengthen a model based on sustainability, equal access, and national security, together with the exploitation of natural resources in full environmental harmony”.
This paints quite a rosy picture – but what’s the catch?
Some of the negative consequences of the Costa Rican drive towards renewable energy are more obvious than others. It’s clear that in many cases, the hard engineering of hydroelectric dams can have detrimental social and environmental consequences. This includes disruption of natural river flows and movements of aquatic wildlife. Mass projects such as the Reventazón hydroelectric dam were criticised for not considering the loss of valuable wildlife habitat and displacement of indigenous communities.
To be truly sustainable, it is essential that concerns surrounding biodiversity and human rights are taken seriously, so that projects don’t create more local problems than they solve.
Secondly, for a country in the tropics, it becomes quickly apparent that solar power is actually highly underutilised, providing less than 1% of Costa Rica’s electricity. However this may be down to political choice, given the fact that large-scale dams provide the state electricity company with a level of profit that micro-generation of solar PV wouldn’t match.
Such impressive statistics can also mask the growing petrol-hungry transport sector in Costa Rican cities. Hybrid and electric cars make up 2% of vehicles in the country, with congestion in San José resulting in air pollution, posing a threat to health and wellbeing in the capital.
This mixed bag begs the question of what can we learn from Costa Rica here in the UK?
It would seem there are a mixture of inspirational success stories, alongside some grave warnings.
Although the obvious differences between Costa Rica and the UK lie in geography, climate patterns and population, the environmental reputation of the Central American nation is the envy of much of the world. Therefore it makes sense to learn what we can from them, given the floundering political will towards the green energy transition here in the UK.
Like Costa Rica, we too are well-placed to take advantage of our own renewable energy resources – namely solar and wind, which provided almost one fifth of GB electricity in 2017. Separately, 2018 marked the 25th survey of the UK Government’s Energy and Climate Change Public Attitudes Tracker (PAT), which revealed that individual backing for the use of renewable energy reached a record of 85%.
So why does fracking for shale gas continue unabated, and why is the export tariff which pays micro-generators a fair price for their electricity being scrapped next year? It’s clear that rhetoric does not quite match up with reality, and as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. A meaningful commitment from the top towards the green energy transition would follow in Costa Rica’s footsteps and help the UK meet its own climate change goals set in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
In terms of lessons to be learnt, this article if anything has shown that the Costa Rican example is not perfect. The over-reliance on fossil fuels in the transport sector continues to be a thorn in our side here in the UK, with a group of MPs arguing the ban on sale of petrol and diesel cars in the UK needs to be brought forward to 2032 (instead of 2040 for England and Wales and 2034 for Scotland). Car manufactures and transport campaigners have hit out at the Government slashing incentives for consumers to buy hybrid and electric cars, adding thousands of pounds to the price of a new low-emission vehicle. What will be key to our clean energy transition is how our private transport sector and energy infrastructure will adapt to electric vehicle technology.
If the Costa Rican example shows anything, it’s that an holistic nation-wide approach from the top-down is needed to ensure true sustainability, at this crucial time faced by our civilisation. This must account for the urgency with which we must tackle climate change (highlighted by last month’s IPCC report), with a clear commitment to renewable energy with the transport sector at its heart.
About the author: Alison joined The National Energy Foundation in 2017 as a Households and Communities Project Officer. With a BA in English and Politics and an MA in Environmental Politics from Keele University, Alison plays a key role in the delivery of the Better Housing Better Health service andGawcott Solar - two charitable projects coordinated by The Foundation.
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