Costa Rica to become the first completely carbon neutral nation – how have they done it?

Back in 2015, Costa Rica made a pledge to become carbon-neutral by 2021, an ambitious target that has since made it one of the greenest countries on the planet. But how have they done this? For our sustainability month, Business Leader investigates.

More than 99% renewable energy

Incredibly, since 2019, more than 99% of the energy generated in the country has come from renewable energy sources. According to the country’s National Center for Energy Control, Costa Rica has been running on more than 98% renewable energy since 2014

67.5% of this renewable energy comes from hydropower; 17% from wind power; 13.5% from geothermal sources, with biomass and solar panels accounting for 0.84%. The remaining 1.16% is from backup plants.

With 100% of households in Costa Rica having access to renewable electricity, despite 20% of the population living in rural areas, the country managed to last 300 days running solely on renewable energy in 2017 – the current world record.

Energy produces roughly 60% of all greenhouse gas emissions, so Costa Rica’s move to renewable energy is a huge step in their quest for carbon neutrality.

Tackling deforestation

Costa Rica has been leading the way in tackling deforestation since the 1980s, implementing various policies to protect the country’s forests. This is important because of the role of trees in absorbing and storing CO2.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), forest loss is the cause of around 10% of global warming. However, Costa Rica more than doubled the proportion of its landmass covered by forest from 26% in 1984 to 52% by 2011.

Despite being slightly smaller the US state of West Virginia, Costa Rica is home to 6% of the world’s biodiversity, which is incredible. Biodiversity provides functioning ecosystems that supply oxygen, clean air and water, pollination of plants, pest control, wastewater treatment and many ecosystem services. Therefore, its outstanding biodiversity is another big factor in Costa Rica becoming carbon neutral.

Pledging to eliminate fossil fuels

Traffic jamDuring his inauguration speech in 2018, Costa Rica President Carlos Alvarado announced that he plans to ban all fossil fuels and become the world’s first decarbonised country.

The plans for this began in 2021 and as previously mentioned, the country manages to avoid using a lot of fossil fuels because of their widespread use of renewable energy.

However, Costa Rica’s ability to fulfil this pledge will depend on how they deal with the climate impact from the transport sector, which currently accounts for 54% of Costa Rica’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Costa Rica has the third-highest car ownership rate in Latin America, so decreasing the reliance on cars and switching to more eco-friendly forms of travel will be essential for the country meeting net zero by 2050.

Could the UK follow in Costa Rica’s green footsteps?

With Boris Johnson announcing his 10-point plan for a ‘green industrial revolution’, the UK Government does appear to have some ambition in combatting climate change. However, according to James Murray, Editor-in-chief at Business Green “The plan is realistic, but the issue with it is that it’s a first step. More policy decisions must be made to deliver on it.”

Like Costa Rica’s reliance on cars, the UK also has its own challenges preventing it from moving to clean energy.

“The main barrier is the sheer scale of the challenge,” continued James. “We’re talking about decarbonising a modern economy, which will require a huge amount of investment, whilst we also need to mobilise that funding.”

“And there are technical challenges too, particularly in agriculture, aviation and heating. Meat production is fundamentally carbon-intensive, whilst there will need to be a shift in diets and land use, both of which are big cultural challenges, to combat this. Electric planes are a long way off being commercialised and there are cost issues when addressing this too.

“There is also the political and public challenge. How do you build the cultural change and political coalition required? It is doable and there are more people and politicians wanting to do it, but it’s not quite there yet.”

At the moment, around 43% of the energy generated in the UK comes from renewable energy sources, and James believes that we “could definitely get more renewable energy on the grid, which will be used in conjunction with battery storage.

“Offshore wind will be the backbone of the energy system but finding the final 20% to move to a 100% renewable energy might be difficult, which is why the government is still looking at nuclear energy and other non-renewable alternatives.”

“Fossil fuels are still the lifeblood of the economy, which is what makes unpicking our reliance so challenging. How do we do this without causing such a major disruption? There needs to be a transition over the next 3 decades.”

“Boris Johnson talks a lot about net-zero but there isn’t a consistent and concerted effort in place, which other countries have had. For example, the energy efficiency of our homes has been spoken about a lot over the last decade, but we’ve just not delivered on it.