Towards a Deep-Decarbonization: The Case of Costa Rica

Jairo Quiros-Tortos

Jairo Quiros-Tortos

Costa Rica is one of the first countries in the world to set an unconditional target toward carbon neutrality by 2050, and even published a plan to reach this goal. This small country has big ambitions and is doing a lot to successfully attain them.

Costa Rica has a big vision: the decarbonization of its economy. In other words, decoupling economic growth from greenhouse gas-emissions as quickly as possible, while considering the costs implied. The ‘’country’s decarbonization’’ is a recent initiative, traced back to 1949 with the promotion of renewable sources to generate electricity. Then, in the 80s, Costa Rica issued a law forbidding forest felling or harvesting in national parks, biological reserves, mangroves, protected areas, wildlife refuges and state-owned forest reserves.

Today, the country’s electricity matrix is close to being 100% renewable, sourced from hydropower (dams and run of river), geothermal and wind plants. Moreover, about 54% of Costa Rican territory is covered by forest– which plays a big role in achieving the goal of zero net emissions.

However, according to the national greenhouse gas inventory, the transport sector accounts for the most emissions, due to their increasing demand for fossil fuels. Costa Rica’s vehicle fleet doubled in the last 20 years: from approximately 450,000 in 1994 to over 1’200,000 in 2014 (MINAE, 2015). This is equivalent to 204 vehicles per thousand inhabitants in 2011, and to 262 in 2015. In the same year, the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) stated that the transport sector was “responsible for 66% of hydrocarbon consumption and 54% of the country’s CO2 emissions” (MINAE, 2015), with almost half originated from private vehicles.

The electrification of the transport sector is necessary to reach zero net emissions and meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement. This is recognized in the country’s recently launched Decarbonization Plan, in which three of its ten lines of action focus on delivering a cleaner and more efficient transport system. The following are some of its goals:

  • 30% of public transport vehicles will be zero-emissions, and a new passenger electric train will be operative and 100% electric by 2035.
  • The public transport system will operate in an integrated way, replacing the private vehicle as the first option of mobility for the population in the Great Metropolitan Area by 2050.
  • 85% of the public transport fleet will be zero-emissions by 2050.
  • 30% of the light vehicles fleet – private and institutional – will be electric by 2035. 95% of the fleet will be zero-emissions by 2050.
  • Limon’s Electric Freight Train (TELCA) will be in operation by 2022 (it will transport goods from and to Limon’s new port).
  • 20% of the cargo fleet operating with Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) by 2030.
  • Cargo transportation will be highly efficient and will reduce 20% of emissions by 2050, compared to 2018.
 

The role of civil society in decarbonization

These targets are based on scientific assessments, made by the University of Costa Rica’s Electric Power & Energy Research Laboratory – EPERLab (led by this post’s author), for the IDB project “Deep-Decarbonization Pathways in Latin-American and the Caribbean” (DDPLAC) and coordinated by IDDRI. We have been developing a scalable, open source, flexible and easy-to-use model for integrating and characterizing the energy sector (transport and electricity) in Costa Rica.

Our OSeMOSYS-based model (named IAM-CR-ALPHA) for this project was developed with the help of the Royal Institute of Technology, and allows to analyze the energy sector to help policymakers make informed decisions. In the context of the DDDPLAC project, the University was able to contribute with assessments on how some of the targets listed above can help advance the decarbonization goal.

A challenge when assessing such a long-term plan has to do with managing uncertainty. For instance, the availability and cost of clean technologies are difficult to estimate for the next five to 30 years. This is why, for another IDB project, the University of Costa Rica is partnering with researchers from the TEC of Monterrey and the Rand Corporation to explore the impact of such uncertainties. Jairo Quiros-Tortos

A challenge when assessing such a long-term plan has to do with managing uncertainty. For instance, the availability and cost of clean technologies are difficult to estimate for the next five to 30 years. This is why, for another IDB project, the University of Costa Rica is partnering with researchers from the TEC of Monterrey and the Rand Corporation to explore the impact of such uncertainties.

The team has started a cost-benefit assessment of the Plan, using a Robust Decision-Making (RDM) technique. This work seeks to understand the conditions in which the Plan would successfully reduce emissions while bringing net economic benefits to Costa Rica, and the conditions in which the Plan could fall short, to provide options for avoiding those risks. It relies heavily on integrating the perspectives of development stakeholders, such as other members of civil society, public, and private institutions in the country. These perspectives have been gathered through multiple workshops, for understanding the social factors that affect and/or enhance the impact of the Plan and its sustainability. Decarbonizing Costa Rica requires efforts beyond the ones made in the transport sector, as reflected in the Plan. Being able to model other sectors would allow the EPERLab to contribute strengthening the public decision-making process.

Since the energy, land use, and water sectors have complex links and can impact each other, being able to have a complete image of the situation would help analyze the country’s decarbonization goals. To achieve that, the University is currently developing a Climate-Land-Energy-Water (CLEW) nexus model, and recently hired a water and a land-use expert to help.

The goal is to continue supporting the MINAE in understanding the complex interactions between sectors of the economy, fuel availability, and human behavior to guide their actions in this matter. This case has shown that the inputs and knowledge of civil society stakeholders are essential for making sustainable policy decisions. 


If you want to know more about partnerships between different development actors for climate change, check our new publication.

Jairo Quiros-Tortos

Jairo Quiros-Tortos

Is a Professor at the University of Costa Rica expert in electro-mobility, and currently leads the long-term energy-modelling efforts for the Climate Change Directorate.