In April 2015, Costa Rica’s state utility company issued a news release noting that it had gone through the first 75 days of 2015 without using any fossil fuels to generate electricity. Instead, favourable water levels had allowed the utility to power the country with more renewable hydro in place of oil or coal.

The story of the small Central America country’s clean triumph grabbed headlines globally. Some media outlets even enthusiastically declared that the country was operating without any fossil fuels at all, according to Costa Rican think tank director Monica Araya.

“The world is so hungry for this kind of story and there is a need to believe it is possible, a country 100 per cent clean,” Araya said.

One hundred per cent clean: That’s Costa Rica’s stated goal. In 2007, the government of the time declared that the country of some five million people would become carbon neutral by 2021. The latter date is not without significance: it’s the 200 year anniversary of Costa Rica's independence from Spain.

But is Costa Rica on the path of carbon neutrality – a much-vaunted goal for many countries around the world – and what can other nations learn from its experience?

Araya directs the think tanks of Nivela and Costa Rica Limpia which respectively focus on clean development and transportation issues. She spoke to the National Observer from Oslo, Norway – another country attempting to reach carbon neutrality and where she was attending meetings.

When Costa Rica pledged carbon neutrality back in 2007, that was at a time when developing countries did not make such commitments. Back then such a pledge was revolutionary and bold, Araya notes, and very much in the feisty spirit of the Latin American country – during interviews with the National Observer two separate people used the phrase “punching above its weight” to describe Costa Rica.

In fact, not only would Costa Rica be carbon neutral, but it would be the first country in the world to reach that landmark in a year symbolizing not only its independence from Spain, but from oil. “That, in my world view, is very attractive framing,” Araya said.

While it’s impressive the power agency went 75 days without using fossil fuels, the truth is that for a number of years now the country has operated at 85 per cent or better hydro capacity for power. The more troubling statistic is that hydro and sustainable energy makes up 30 per cent of Costa Rica’s primary energy with fossil fuels forming the other 70 per cent.

Yet the country doesn’t have dirty industries; it’s a largely service-oriented economy. “Why is it our emissions are growing then?” Araya rhetorically asks. “Because if you see our graph of emissions in this country, it’s going, up, up, up.”

As it turns out, the culprit is partly an emerging middle class with an appetite for cars.

Until very recently Lawrence Pratt was the director of the Latin American Centre for Competitiveness and Sustainable Development in Costa Rica. Currently, a senior lecturer at INCAE Business School in Costa Rica, in 2010 he also co-authored a paper for the then-current government titled The NEEDS – National, Economic and Development Study for Climate Change: Options for the Mitigation of Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Costa Rica: Towards Carbon Neutrality in 2021.

According to Pratt, when countries go from roughly $8,000 per year Gross Domestic Product to about $15,000 GDP per person, the expectation is the number of cars double or triple because of a middle class now reaching the point where they can afford their own vehicles.

Pratt cited this figure over the phone just after getting out of his own vehicle and noting he’d been dealing with the “rather intense traffic over the last half-hour” as he headed into work.

“It’s really predictable. Development economists look at that number: You tell me what your country’s GDP per capita is, I’ll tell you how many cars you have.”

Pratt and his co-authors anticipated the rise in emissions and in their report called for a number of recommendations. They included restrictions on vehicle use, hybrid vehicles, car pooling, electric trains, and a four-day work week, among other things.

However, it’s not just the increase of cars clogging the roads that’s undermining Costa Rica’s plan; it’s also a lack of political will. When the carbon neutral plan was first introduced in 2007, Costa Rica’s businesses were quick to buy in; some 60 to 70 immediately pledged carbon neutrality.

The idea captured the imagination of the private sector, drawing interest from influential national and multinational companies including the country’s largest media group and multinational fruit companies.

But the Costa Rican government failed to decisively act. The policies that would help drive a low carbon emission development strategy never really got off the ground. The agriculture ministry took it very seriously, aggressively examining how to improve carbon profiles in a developing country’s agricultural sector.

But the agricultural ministry was an exception.

“The uptake was kind of spotty,” Pratt recalled.

“Not to be overly critical of the government, nor to let them off the hook for the many things they could have done, should have done and didn’t do, it’s pretty clear in hindsight that many of these items required coordination among two or three ministries.”

Originally, the government of Oscar Arias set the goal and made the announcement, but not a lot took place during his time in office.

And after Laura Chinchilla took over as president, her administration talked a lot about carbon neutrality, Pratt said. “If you actually look at policy initiatives or even things they tried to put through, there’s not a lot there.”

Yet carbon neutrality is now an essential part of the country's political discourse. The idea has outlived two previous governments and not even a government from a different party could get rid of the idea, such is its hold upon Costa Rica's imagination.

"From a political perspective, it's part of the narrative," Araya said. "There's probably no politician in Costa Rica who can afford to go on TV and say we're not going to be carbon neutral by 2021."

As well, the concept has created a new class of professionals in Costa Rica, carbon neutral experts. People know how to measure the carbon footprints of companies and are creating carbon neutral products. As Araya notes: "The brand is very powerful."

Powerful or not, now the country is running out of time and skepticism exists that Costa Rica will meet its self-imposed deadline. And Araya, for one, says that will cost the country. “Now we only have six years to deliver and if we don’t deliver, we’re going to hurt our reputation badly.”

For her, the problem is two-fold: Costa Rica must decrease its dependence fossil fuels and change the way the transportation of people and goods work. And when it comes to electricity, the country needs solar, wind and other alternatives to ensure year-around clean power.

“In a world where we have climate change, we are vulnerable because we are already facing problems with water,” Araya asserted.

Objectively, outside of the country, how does Costa Rica stack up in the carbon neutrality stakes?

Climate Action Tracker, a website that offers an independent science-based assessment of the emission commitments and actions of countries, rates Costa Rica’s efforts as “sufficient.”

The website notes the country’s 2021 commitment relies on international financing and suggests, “In absence of additional policies, Costa Rica will not be able to meet its high aspirations.”

In fact, under current policy projects, Costa Rica’s greenhouse gas emissions are projected to double by 2030, according to Climate Action Tracker - not exactly the stuff carbon neutrality dreams are made of.

While Costa Rica may not meet its stated goal for carbon neutrality, that doesn’t mean it’s a grand scheme that failed. Quint Newcomer is the director of the University of Georgia’s campus in Costa Rica. He hails Costa Rica’s push for carbon neutrality as fantastic. "It fits with Costa Rica’s pioneering spirit and demonstrated abilities,” Newcomer said.

For his part, Mark Konold, the Caribbean program manager for the Worldwatch Institute’s Climate and Energy Program in Washington, D.C., noted: “I think any country that boldly sets a renewable energy target and that says this is what we’re going for and this is by when we’re going to do it, I think that’s something any country can emulate.

“I think just by putting it out there as the lighthouse on the horizon, you may not get there when you think you will, but at least you’re going in that direction. And, you’re sending the signal this is the way we’re going. I think any country can learn from that.”

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