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There has recently been some news articles about Costa Rica’s reliance on fossil fuels. This one claims Costa Rica hasn’t depended on fossil fuels for the last 75 days. This one is a little more careful and corrected its language to show that only the electricity system has been free of fossil fuels since the end of 2014. However the author still avoids giving info about the rest of Costa Rica’s energy system.

credit: nathab.com

credit: nathab.com

While the media is trying to show that progress on addressing climate change is prevalent, the truth is that even countries that show promising progress (Costa Rica, Iceland, etc.) are far from achieving fossil fuel independence.

Costa Rica is relatively lucky. They have a mild climate that mostly negates the need for heating and cooling. They also have large hydropower resources (providing 68% of their electricity) as well as further geothermal potential. However hydro still has many detrimental effects including displacing indigenous people, disrupting ecosystems, and flooding large areas that then emit CO2 from decaying plant matter.

Of the energy consumed in Costa Rica (0.2 quadrillion BTUs in 2012), only 44% is even generated within the country. The rest is imported. Most of these imports are petroleum products used to fuel the transportation system. Costa Rica has avoided growing biofuels since two of their largest sectors are agriculture and ecotourism. Hopefully electrified transport options will expand, but that still means they will need to nearly double the amount of electricity they produce to really stop fossil fuel use.

Another big carbon emitter? Tourists flying. Costa Rica gets nearly 12% of its GDP from 2.52 million people visiting the country each year. 40% of those are Americans. Using a flight emissions calculator, the impact of just Americans visiting Costa Rica is 1.0 million tonnes CO2 per year. Compare that to Costa Rica’s 7.5 million tonnes CO2 per year (mostly from internal transportation). Tourism flights alone probably increase fossil fuel emissions due to Costa Rica by 30%.

Costa Rica aims to be carbon neutral by 2021. Apparently they can continue to emit non-zero levels of CO2 and still be neutral if they continue their reforestation projects. While laudable, neither fossil fuel use or reforestation can continue indefinitely. And if tourism declines, as is necessary without a major new technology, where do government incentives to conserve forests come from?

Costa Rica has implemented some great polices and they are moving in the right direction. It is still a good conversation piece for talking about energy, but we need to acknowledge that transitioning from fossil fuels will not be easy. Most countries have different strengths (wind vs. hydro vs. solar) for generating electricity, but transitioning transportation away from fossil fuels will be extremely hard for everyone.