Somini Sengupta and her colleague Alexander Villegas published a story yesterday that resonates with the explanations Amie and I gave friends and family about our original decision to live in Costa Rica. It also resonates with the decision we made recently to return. In 2010 when we moved to Kerala it was not clear when, or even if, we would be back here. But our work in India was intertwined with Costa Rica’s evergreen pioneering role in the global conversation about conservation. So we are back. And the evergreen is appreciated, especially in the way Costa Rica’s president and his wife tell the story within a story.
Despite it’s diminutive size, Costa Rica been at the forefront of the climate change conversation. While the country has only about 0.25% of the world’s landmass, it contains almost 5% of the world’s biodiversity. These statistics give both an added incentive to focus energies on shifting the juggernaut of climate change and the ecological soapbox from which to be heard.
Costa Rica has an infrastructural uphill climb, most specifically with transportation as is illustrated below, but the country has stood its ground successfully in the past. When we think of the country’s road network in the mid-1990s relative to the roads today, it gives one of many reasons to be optimistic:
SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — It’s a green big deal for a tiny sliver of a country. Costa Rica, population 5 million, wants to wean itself from fossil fuels by 2050, and the chief evangelist of the idea is a 38-year-old urban planner named Claudia Dobles who also happens to be the first lady.
Every country will have to aspire to something similar, scientists say, if the world is to avert the most dire consequences of global warming. And while Costa Rica’s carbon footprint is tiny compared to other countries, Ms. Dobles has a higher goal in mind: Getting rid of fossil fuels would show the world that a small country can be a leader on an awesome problem and improve the health and well-being of its citizens in the bargain.
It would, she said, combat a “sense of negativity and chaos” in the face of global warming. “We need to start providing answers.”Costa Rica’s green bid, though fraught with challenges, has a head start. Electricity comes largely from renewable sources already — chiefly hydropower, but also wind, solar and geothermal energy. The country has doubled its forest cover in the last 30 years, after decades of deforestation, so that half of its land surface is now covered with trees. That’s a huge carbon sink and a huge draw for tourists. Also, climate change is not a divisive political issue.
Now, if its decarbonization strategy succeeds, it could provide a road map to others, especially developing countries, showing how democratically elected leaders can grow their economies without relying on polluting sources of energy. But if it doesn’t work, in a country so small and politically stable, it would have equally profound consequences.
“If we can’t pull it off by 2050, it’s likely no other country can pull it off,” said Francisco Alpízar, an economist at the Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education Center in Turrialba, Costa Rica and a climate adviser to the government. “That would be really bad.”
Claudia Dobles said her first priority was to overhaul transportation, which accounts for most of Costa Rica’s greenhouse gas emissions. It is the largest single source of Costa Rica’s greenhouse gas emissions. The number of cars and motorcycles on the roads is growing fast, according to a survey by a nongovernmental group called State of the Nation. The average car in the country is 17 years old. Congestion is a huge problem; morning traffic in the San José metropolitan area moves at an average of less than 10 miles per hour. Afternoons are worse.
The National Decarbonization Plan, as it’s called, envisions electric passenger and freight trains in service by 2022, which is when Ms. Dobles’s husband, President Carlos Alvarado, finishes his term. Under the plan, nearly a third of all buses would be electric by 2035, dozens of charging stations would be built, and nearly all cars and buses on the roads would be electric by 2050. Unlike many other countries, Costa Rica does not rely on coal to produce its electricity.
Revamping transportation is expensive and so it will require tackling things that have little direct connection to climate change — fixing the country’s fiscal health, for one, to be able to secure big foreign loans to fund such an ambitious project, and lowering unemployment, which is a pressing political demand. It also means addressing the aspirations of its upwardly mobile people.
Stephanie Abarca is one of them. Purse and lunch bag in hand, on her way to work one morning, the 32-year-old Ms. Abarca was 100 percent behind the first lady’s green targets. Of course, Ms. Abarca said, Costa Rica should be a green “pioneer.”
But she faces more immediate problems. For her, getting to work means waking up at 4 a.m. to shower and dress, ride the bus for an hour, walk a few blocks (or run, if the bus is late), and board a slow-chugging, horn-blaring diesel train for another 20 minutes to finally get to her office. Most weeks, after a nearly two-hour commute each way, she is too exhausted for the 6 p.m. yoga class that her employer offers to relieve stress. By Fridays, she is running on fumes.
Her goal: She is saving up to buy a secondhand car, a subcompact Suzuki Swift. It would improve her commute, she said, knowing full well that it would also inject more carbon into the atmosphere. “Everybody wants to have a car,” said Ms. Abarca, a manager at a furniture company. “That doesn’t help.”
After transportation, agriculture and garbage account for the largest share of Costa Rica’s emissions. To curb emissions from landfills, the plan proposes new waste treatment plants, as well as recycling and composting systems, which are now virtually nonexistent. The country’s pineapple and banana growers would have to reduce emissions. So, too, its cattle ranchers, which could mean using less land. Costa Ricans, including the ones in the first family, are fond of meat.
The president laughed when I asked him about going vegan. “I don’t think that will happen,” he said…
…Mr. Alvarado, 39, who wrote a historical novel before he became president last year, is fond of invoking the past. Leaders before him did improbable things too, he pointed out, like abolishing the army in the 1940s. He has called climate change “the greatest task of our generation.” He said he saw no point in waiting for bigger, more powerful countries to act first. By 2050, he pointed out, the couple’s son will be 37, the same age he was when he ran for the presidency.
On the last Sunday of February, on a stage erected behind the National Museum, his administration sought to rally the country to the decarbonization plan. Guests filed in. The dress code was tropical casual: florals, linens, Panama hats. Sounds of the rain forest echoed through the space. Performers dressed as animals moved through the crowd. A jaguar slunk along the floor, occasionally rubbing against the pant legs of a politician, a macaw on stilts fussed with a well-dressed woman’s hair, a frog photo-bombed bystanders.
“Green is the New Black,” read the slogan on the first lady’s T-shirt…