The Little Giant: How Costa Rica Is Leading In Renewable Energy.

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Cover – Pigment-Ink, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While the world is busy trying to debate whether the climate change is real or hoax.  A small but ambitious developing country in the Americas is emerging as an inspirational success story.  The country of Costa Rica, located between the continents of north and South America is busy debunking the myth that “environmental protection and sustainability cannot go hand in hand with economic development of a Nation. It is challenging the notion that a country has to choose between development and Environment.  It is a story fueled by the ambition of 5 million people.

But where does it all begins?

The story starts in 1948. Costa Rica had seen one of the bloodiest times in its history. A 40 day civil war paralyzed the country. Families were split, lives were lost. But unlike the rest of the world, Costa Rica was quick to assess its losses and sprang back on its feet in a very short time. It not only chose the path of legitimate democracy, but took radical steps to reinforce its belief in the democratic setup. It abolished its army in 1948, which is unimaginable for most of the nations. It was a deliberate choice.

As a result of this, the funds which the nation spent on the large standing army and its resources were now being spent on other meaningful pursuits of Public welfare. Free health and free education were some of them. Moreover, the government laid the foundation of the future development of Costa Rica by implementing a simple idea ‘to develop the nation without keeping the fossil fuels at the center of it’.

Action followed the Decision

In the coming decade of 1950s, Costa Rica invested heavily in the development of Hydro-power. This was the first step to avoid falling into the trap of generating electricity using fossil fuels. The planners took the advantage of the geographical conditions and climate of the nation and utilized its annual average rainfall which is sufficient to continuously pour water in its rivers and keep on producing the Hydro-power, lots of it. This reached to an extent where the total contribution of hydro-power in the nation’s electricity generation is a staggering 65%.

In the 1970s, they focused on forest cover which was rapidly declining. It dropped from 70% of the country in 1950 to just 21% by 1987 and needed quick intervention. They invested in National Parks, to avoid the contemporary push of Growth at the cost of environment. They were intelligent enough to recognize the fact that when the whole world around them is losing forests and wildlife, theirs will become much more significant and valued. Their intervention reversed the trend and in the 1980s forests began to recover and reforestation and afforestation gained an upward momentum.

IN 1990s, they implemented the economic tool of “payment for ecosystem services (PES)” and reversed deforestation. For the first time in the world, a PES program was implemented at a national Scale. The idea was to pay to the stakeholders (landowner/indigenous communities & others) to maintain and conserve the forest lands. The populace was inoculated with the ideas of ‘harvesting the nature instead of exploiting it’.

The government of Costa Rica recognized four Major Ecosystem services:   mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, hydro-logical services, biodiversity protection, and provision of scenic beauty. Despite some flaws, the strategy worked wonders. The forest cover which remained only 21% by 1987, bounced back to cover 52.38% land area of the country in 2010.

Photo by – Britt Reints, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lush green forests and pristine waterfalls gave boost to Eco-tourism in the nation and created a new driver of economic growth.  In 2016, the contribution of tourism in Costa Rica’s GDP was 5% directly and about 8.2% indirectly.

Did it really grow?

For that we have to be careful about what we are comparing it with. We obviously cannot compare apples with oranges. So let’s pick a developing country with about same population.

Voilà!! The story turns out to be not so different, even though Oman makes 85% of its money from oil export.

But, had Oman followed the same path as Costa Rica, Do you think it would have seen the same success?

No. To say the least, it would not have seen the same development, because the geographical conditions of Oman are not the same. But that does not mean that there is nothing that Oman can learn from the story of Costa Rica. In fact, it is well on its way with its National Energy strategy to derive 30% of its electricity from renewables by 2030. (More on that in some other article)

Costa Rica Today

After all these radical ideas, and unconventional approach, Costa Rica’s progress is nothing short of an inspiration. Nearly 100% of its electricity is generated from renewable sources like hydro-power, geothermal, wind, solar, and biomass. In 2020 about 72% of this electricity came from hydro-power, 14.9% from geothermal sources, 12% from wind and 0.54% ​​from biomass and solar panels. It has been generating nearly all of its electricity consistently from renewables for several years now.

The nation is not yet completely fossil fuel free as majority of its transport sector depends on fossil fuel. But Costa Rica is putting in significant efforts to reduce this to the point where it can use renewable energy to completely power its transportation sector.  The country is aiming to de-carbonize by the year 2050. Seeing its track record of past of 70 years, it does not seem impossible for this determined nation.

Despite being a small developing nation of only 5 million people and a GDP of approximately $61 billion, Costa Rica is well ahead of some of the giants in Asia in some parameters. For instance, the GDP per Capita of China was $10,500 and India stood at $1900 in 2020. Costa Rica on the other hand, had a GDP per Capita of about $12,076 in 2020 which is higher than both of these giants.

This is just another way of making a statement that ‘economic growth needs not to come at the cost of environment, it can be in tandem with it.’ Indeed there is a lot which can be learned from this small nation and its people.

About Author

  • Ankit is an avid reader and a writer by interest who views life as a process of continues conquest. He is an environmental enthusiast and has a Master's degree in Environmental Studies.