Costa Rica’s path to carbon neutrality

If you start searching for information about renewable energy in different countries, you will surely come across the story of Costa Rica. In the last few years Costa Rica has been producing nearly all of its electricity from renewable sources, and this has earned the small Central American country a reputation as a green energy leader. What’s even more admirable is that Costa Rica has set a goal to become the world’s first carbon neutral country by 2021. But is this goal realistic and what can other countries learn from Costa Rica?

Lake Arenal
The area around Lake Arenal is a popular tourist destination in Costa Rica, but the lake is also a reservoir that plays an important role in the country’s energy generation – when the Lake Arenal Dam was first built in 1979 it produced a staggering 70% of the country’s electricity!

Renewable energy in Costa Rica

According to the Costa Rican Electricity Institute, approximately 98.1% of the country’s electricity in 2016 came from renewable sources. The bulk of this electricity – approximately 65% – is produced by hydroelectric dams, but this percentage has actually been decreasing in recent years as Costa Rica has been investing more in other renewable energy sources.

Approximately 70% of electricity produced in Costa Rica comes from hydroelectric plants.
Cachi Dam is one of many hydroelectric power plants in Costa Rica.

The reason Costa Rica has been investing heavily in hydropower is that heavy tropical rains, multiple rivers and mountainous landscape make it an ideal solution. Another natural resource the country has utilized for energy production is volcanoes, and around 15% of electricity in Costa Rica is now produced with geothermal energy. Unlike most renewable energy sources, geothermal energy has the benefit of remaining stable regardless of weather.

Geothermal energy plant in Costa Rica
Pailas Geothermal Power Plant in Rincon de la Vieja is a geothermal energy project in volcano-rich Costa Rica.

Challenges of carbon-neutrality

As inspiring as Costa Rica’s example is, it is difficult for other countries to replicate this model. Not all countries are blessed with heavy rains and volcanoes that make hydropower and geothermal energy possible. Costa Rica’s population is also relatively small, and the economy relies very little on energy-intensive industries. In fact, the main industry is tourism, and the fact that Costa Rica’s main tourist attraction is its nature and wildlife may make the country more willing to invest in clean energy.

One of the challenges Costa Rica faces is growing energy use. New dams are being built to meet the growing demand, including the recently completed Reventazón megaproject, the second largest infrastructure project in Central America after the Panama Canal. These megaprojects have their share of problems, however, including environmental issues and forced relocation of indigenous people. Climate change and droughts are also a threat to the system that relies so heavily on hydropower.

To meet increasing demand and to provide resilience in the face of climate change, Costa Rica is diverisfying its energy sources, for example to wind power.
Diversifying energy sources to other renewables like wind creates resilience to droughts that can reduce the output of hydroelectric power plants.

And while electricty comes almost completely from renewable sources, Costa Rica still has a long way to go until carbon neutrality. Electricity and energy are very different things, and two-thirds of energy used in Costa Rica actually comes from oil – because of the gasoline-dependent transportation system. The number of private cars (a very small number of which are electric or hybrid) per person surpasses the Latin American average, and the public transportation system is insufficient. If Costa Rica really aims to be carbon neutral by 2021, transportation is a major issue the country needs to address.

Nonetheless, Costa Rica’s example and determination is inspiring and forward-looking. Costa Rica has shown that countries don’t need to choose between development and a healthy environment- both can be achieved when local resources are sustainably managed.

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