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The World’s First Plastic and Carbon Free Country? How close is Costa Rica?

 “Decarbonization is the great task of our generation and Costa Rica must be one of the first countries in the world to accomplish it, if not the first.


We have the titanic and beautiful task of abolishing the use of fossil fuels in our economy to make way for the use of clean and renewable energies.”


— Carlos Alvarado Quesada, President of Costa Rica





The year Costa Rica plans on going both plastic and carbon free.


Can it be achieved?


Or are they just blowing green smoke?


Costa Rica shows the world that you don’t need to be a rich country to be a smart country.


Sadly, too often – when countries do acknowledge the truth about plastic pollution, climate change, and deforestation, they always assume that they just can’t afford to change.


They put economic growth first instead, without recognizing they are only playing “hot potato” with the long-term future of their own nation.



And so many beautiful nations, all over the world, that would be considered a tropical paradise if humans simply were never there – end up covered in smog, garbage, and plastic.


For anyone who has ever been to Costa Rica, it is truly a beautiful and majestic place with rich, lush jungles and home to some of the greatest biodiversity in the world.


Although a very small Central American nation, it is home to over 5% of all the world’s biodiversity!


Over the last generation, the government has made a tremendous effort to protect its environment, and through various government initiatives, they have been amongst the most successful nations to do so.


Living Circular goes into further detail, “The government realized that nature is Costa Rica’s main asset and since the 1980s has made every effort to protect it: including, among other things, zoo closures, reforestation, and establishing protected areas (25% of the total surface area of the country).”



Compared to other countries, Costa Rica is already WAY ahead in terms of its carbon footprint. It generates 99% of all electrical energy through renewables – including wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, and biomass.




If only every nation recognized that nature was its main asset! (in a circular economy, we would do just that)


As a comparison, The United States only generates approx. 15% -17% of its electrical energy through renewables.

Although Costa Rica has less than 5 million population and is considered in a developing part of the world with GDP per capita of only $11,700 per year, per person.


For example, the US and Europe are generally between $30,000 -$80,000 for example


- it has, and continues to, outshine the entire region in both its commitment to protecting biodiversity and fighting climate change.




To give you a stark contrast, the reality is that most developing countries aren’t even having a serious conversation about renewable energy, climate change, or plastic – instead many countries are still destroying their own biodiversity, forests, and rainforests!


So how did Costa Rica decide to ban both plastic and carbon-based energy?


It’s easier to start with Costa Rica’s carbon footprint, largely because it is something the government of Costa Rica has been actively working towards for decades.


Given it’s natural landscape with many rivers and streams, it should be no surprise that it’s number one energy source for electricity is water, in the form of hydropower, for approx.. 78% of its total electricity.


Wind and geothermal energy make up the vast majority of the remaining energy needs, at approx.. 10% each. Finally, solar and biomass make up the remaining 1%.




And this is a very big “however.”


Hold on, let me make it even bigger for dramatic impact…..



Stating that Costa Rica generates 99% of its electricity renewably is a true statement, BUT it’s a misleading one.




Costa Rican clean development adviser Dr Monica Araya explains, “It hides a paradox, which is that nearly 70 per cent of all our energy consumption is oil.”


The 99 per cent figure only refers to electricity usage, not gas used for heating or fuel used in vehicles, for example.”


In other words, not 99% of ALL Costa Rican TOTAL ENERGY CONSUMED is renewable, only 30%! (approx..)


Feel misled?


I did (and I intentionally kept the first half of the blog post unedited, so you knew how I felt!).


I’m not going to lie to you, it took me over ten articles and quite a bit of time to find out that very vital piece of information.


I’m going to have to thank my friends across the pond in the jolly ole U.K. at the The Independent for keeping it 100%.

This leads me to a much greater point about environmental activism in general – we must be eternally vigilante and conscious of HOW we measure our collective progress (or regression).


In the age of fake (or misleading) news, we must all be our own individual ministries of truth.


Because the truth is, environmental science is incredibly complex and complicated – it covers at least a dozen scientific fields that are interdisciplinary and interconnected.


Carbon accounting, for example, is the way that companies, governments, and non-profits can quantify their carbon footprint and reduce total emissions.


However, there are multiple ways to account for carbon that are highly credible.


They include the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) methodology, which is designed to calculate the emissions and removals from land use and land use change for a national inventory.


And EVEN WITHIN IPCC, there are still two different accepted forms of accounting (not to mention that not all governments, corporations, or NGO’s all use IPCC’s methodology!).


The research paper, “Review of Existing Methods for Carbon Accounting,” explains: “There are 2 fundamentally different yet equally valid approaches to estimating stock changes: (1) the process-based approach, which estimates the net balance of additions to and removals from a carbon stock (gain–loss method); and (2) the stock based approach, which estimates the difference in carbon stocks at 2 points in time (stock-difference method).”


What’s a carbon stock?


The Food and Agricultural Division of the United Nations defines it as “The quantity of carbon contained in a “pool”, meaning a reservoir or system which has the capacity to accumulate or release carbon.”


The problem is, if I try to explain the complexity of carbon accounting, your eyes will likely glaze over.


Mine did.


And reading the specifics of carbon accounting might actually be MORE boring that actual financial accounting, if that’s even possible.


The equations read like a physics textbook crossed with a financial one.


Here’s a fun example, just in case you don’t believe me:



What’s CVEG?


This is to calculate the above- and below ground vegetation carbon stock (measured as mass of carbon per hectare).


There are seemingly endless calculations to quantity carbon, and they include a carbon stock change in the following:


  1. forestland; 2. cropland; 3. grassland; 4. wetlands; 5. settlements; and 6. other land.


(included in # 5 pools are: 1. aboveground biomass;3 2. below ground biomass;4 3. dead wood;5 4. litter;6 and 5. soil.)


The bottom line here?


Regardless of our profession, we all need to use money, we must be financially literate and at the minimum, understand the difference between a balance sheet, an income statement, and a cash flow statement.


Similarly, we ALL live on this planet together, and to truly make a difference, we must also become mathematically and scientifically literate!


It is irrelevant if we “like” learning math and science or if we were or were not considered “proficient” in this subjects in school or college in the past.


A basic understanding helps us both quantify and qualify environmental progress and therefore is crucial towards the success of our collective efforts.


Environmental Science is an interdisciplinary field that really touches on most, if not all, of the branches of science such as ecology, biology, physics, chemistry, plant science, zoology, mineralogy, oceanography, limnology, soil science, geology and physical geography (geodesy), atmospheric science and more!


In addition to all of us (myself included!) doing their homework and even re-cracking open some biology, chemistry, and physics textbooks, we also need greater uniformity and simplification when discussing multiple scientific fields at once.


Similar to our recommendation for a universal simplification for plastic manufacturing to help create global uniformity for governments, corporations, NGOs etc., I believe the same should apply to carbon accounting and overly confusing scientific and academic jargon.


Remember what Einstein once said, “If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.”


 So back to Costa Rica.


According to the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, and the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program, Costa Rica actually does a bit better than 30%, and approx. 38% of ALL TOTAL FINAL ENERGY CONSUMED is still renewable, and that’s still an amazing accomplishment.


Especially when compared to nations like the United States and The United Kingdom (both at about 9%), or China, which is about 12%.




(This is a totally separate note and something to expound upon in a later blog post, but there are actually quite a few developing countries in Africa absolutely CRUSHIN’ IT with renewable energy:


Uganda – 89%, Zambia – 88%, Nigeria – 87%, Tanzania – 86%. )


More importantly, this is a far better way to measure renewable energy, as a percentage of total final energy consumption.




In the end, how we measure progress matters.


We could all drive around in electric cars, but if we are charging them through an electrical grid powered by a dirty coal power plant, then gasoline may actually be better for the planet!


And even though Costa Rica has a long way to go to become carbon neutral and plastic free in less then 2 years, it has still done way more than most countries as well as most of its neighbors when it comes to environmentalism.


This is especially true when it comes to protection of its biodiversity, forests, and reducing plastic pollution.


Less important than an EXACT date, in my opinion, is a constant and consistent movement towards environmental progress that transcend any social class, political party, special interest group, etc. and works for everyone, so that environmental progress continues regardless of a change in political parties.


We aren’t there yet, unfortunately.


But with continued and relentless research, education, activism, and unbiased and honest reporting – we can get a little closer towards consensus - and long-term progress, each day.



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