March 20, 2019

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Tiny Costa Rica Has a Green New Deal, Too. It Matters for the Whole Planet.

Tiny Costa Rica Has a Green New Deal, Too. It Matters for the Whole Planet.
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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.

For Ms. Dobles, the top priority is fixing transportation. 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.

How to pay for Costa Rica’s green ambitions remains a question mark. A rough, initial estimate puts the price tag at $6.5 billion in the next 11 years alone, which the government has said will be shared between the private and public sectors. Still, tax collection is poor, powerful industries are tax-exempt, and government debts have soared, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. A widening deficit recently prompted ratings agencies to downgrade Costa Rica’s creditworthiness. And a fiscal overhaul that Mr. Alvarado pushed through last year prompted street demonstrations and a crippling monthslong strike by teachers.

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.

“This is a great transformation we have ahead of us,” the president declared. “We have to conquer it with data, with intelligence, but more than anything, we have to fill ourselves with courage to go forward.”

Not everyone stands to gain.

An industry group that represents bus owners said that if they were to electrify their fleets, as the government insists, they would need money from the government, or higher fares from their passengers, which would very likely create political difficulties for the government.

Car importers want the government to crack down on used cars, which tend to pollute more. The biggest importer, Javier Quirós, said to pay for such an ambitious plan, the country might want to reconsider its ban on oil drilling. And Guillermo Constenla, the head of the largest party in Congress, balked at the idea of raising the gas tax.

There’s another complication. Fewer new cars would mean less money for the government at a time when Costa Rica can least afford it. Taxes associated with fossil fuels, including new cars, account for more than 20 percent of public revenues, according to the Environment and Energy Ministry.

The government is dangling the possibility of a comprehensive tax overhaul, a politically risky venture. Ms. Dobles has suggested higher taxes on gas-guzzling vehicles, also risky.

Ms. Dobles is certain that habits will change. As a child, she said, she spent an hour to and from school by bus; it’s where she got to know Mr. Alvarado. Most socializing was done at home, occasionally at a shopping mall. Her parents drove her around. “I never got to go outside, basically,” she recalled, except when she went to visit relatives in the countryside. Then she visited Paris, on a college scholarship. It was mind-blowing. She didn’t miss not having a car.

It’s a feeling she wants Costa Ricans to have at home. For that, she said, the vast, sprawling San José metropolitan area needs to be fundamentally redrawn. More apartments, more shops, more sidewalks, more public spaces for people to socialize. And fast, modern, safe public transportation. Ms. Dobles wants her compatriots to see that this is not about emissions alone. “It’s also about quality of life,” she said.

Of course, if everyone in the world were to decarbonize, that would be a big problem for Costa Rica. Most of the 3 million tourists who came last year flew here, leaving a gigantic carbon footprint in the sky.



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