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Talking Headways Podcast: ‘Stupidly Ambitious’ in Costa Rica

This week, we’re joined by Andrea San Gil Leon, director of Agile City Partners, and environmental journalist Jocelyn Timperley to talk about transportation and climate action in Costa Rica. I came across their work after Timperley wrote an expansive piece for BBC Future. We chat about Costa Rica’s climate action from forest conservation to eco-tourism and the country’s transportation challenges and potential.

If you prefer to read, there's an excerpted transcript below. The full transcript can be found here.

Jeff Wood: I read somewhere where the transport sector makes up about 54 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. That seems to be a lot, maybe even larger than some other countries.

Jocelyn Timperley: Yeah. I mean, the fact it's nearly all renewable electricity sort of bumps that stat up because obviously the renewable electricity is not emitting much as part of that. So I suppose it's all relative to how big the overall emissions are, but it does show that transport across the world for years has been sort of shoved under the rug as countries focus on electricity. And I think now it’s starting to be more recognized as something we really need to do something about.

Andrea San Gil Leon: And just supporting what Jocelyn said, the big weight of transport in our greenhouse gas inventory does definitely have a link, in comparison to other countries, in how clean our electricity matrix is. So other countries, usually having an energy footprint that's quite high, but it's mostly because of their dirty electricity generation and how they produce electricity. But since Costa Rica’s electricity is almost 100 percent renewable, then that's how transport becomes so clearly our biggest source of emission.

JW: So I wanted to chat with you all about this after reading Jocelyn's article in the BBC. And I'm wondering if you could tell the listeners a little bit more about Costa Rica generally, and some of the climate change advancements that the country has made. You know, you talked about the hydroelectric dams and that type of stuff, but what about some of the other things that have been done?

JT: I think the two main things from what I see that Costa Rica has done, these hydroelectric dams, which have developed sort of decades ago, like in several countries in Latin America, including Brazil have these mega-dams, which, you know, do have a lot of issues around that as well, but they do provide renewable electricity. And then the other thing is a really strong forest protection program that Costa Rica implemented over a few decades as well. And so Costa Rica has very little deforestation, even though it has lots of forest. So those are the two big policies that have, I think, helped to make it green.

And then Costa Rica is also built up this reputation of an eco tourism destination, and which has helped with the support of these forestry policies especially, so that's kind of all part in package of what Costa Rica is kind of presenting itself to the world as, and the current government is definitely behind the rhetoric and definitely trying to do lots of things, as well as climate change go to international forum, quite a sort of progressive voice on the climate front trying to push other countries to do new things as well.

ASG: To that, I would add definitely I think a lot of our positioning in the world and, and a lot of our identity as a green country comes from that background and that history of conservation, which was actually deliberate.

Some of the things that we've done, which we get credit for, haven't been that deliberate, for example, the hydro, this was like a tendency in Latin American countries that had a lot of water, but it wasn't precisely thought of as, 'OK, let's do green energies.' It was just, 'We have this in abundance, let's start these types of infrastructure.' But conservation was actually deliberate. And it was in a moment where there was a great boost in agriculture, and some people in the ministry of agriculture realized that there was a great detriment in the environment and in ecosystems. And actually the ministry of the environment came out of the ministry of agriculture and then later just branched into two different ministries.

So that was deliberate. The ecotourism was deliberate in the sense that we realized that people wanted to come see that conservation and that it was actually a source of jobs and of income for a lot of families. And then something that I think changed a lot of things was several of our presidents have been very forward at least in terms of being advocates for the environment. And in 2007, our president said we are going to be carbon-neutral by 2021. And it was a goal that had no technical sense. It was completely political. It was as they usually say, and I was this phrase for a lot of things, including myself, it was 'stupidly ambitious' and it really has no sense. But it's started a movement. It was like the snowball. And so it became this thing where everyone's like, 'Yeah, we were going to be carbon neutral by 2021.' There was questioning around it. And no one really knew how that was going to happen.

And this was way before the NDCs or Paris Agreement, but it's started a conversation and people were getting familiar with a term of carbon-neutrality, and then we started to train people on, 'OK, how do we measure carbon? And how do we start reducing emissions? And what are the sources of these emissions and how do we transform our economy and our companies and our cities to be less carbon intensive.'

So that started a conversation quite a long time ago. And that's helped to mainstream the concept. And even if not everyone's completely involved in climate change, they have at least an awareness. And it's something that in general makes Costa Rican is proud, even if they're not very consistent. I know our policies are not always as consistent, but there's an awareness that sets a base for action. And that it's easier because you don't really have to convince people that much, maybe in comparison to other countries, and here companies want to become carbon-neutral and then cities want to become carbon-neutral, and it's this thing that is completely voluntary, but it’s like a competition. It's like this little star in your forehead that says, 'Yay, you did it.' So I think it's a lot about motivation and pride and feeling good about what we’re doing and a better identity.

And maybe one of the last things, the most recent things, that the country has been doing is a shift towards the electric vehicles. There was a recent law that caused a significant jump towards a shift to electric transport, an electric mobility law. And that provides incentives for electric vehicles. It focuses mostly on private vehicles. However, now there's projects going on to electrify buses and to electrify taxis as well. And there's a huge project being discussed right now about an electric train. So there's a big, big movement towards electrifying transport, which has to be coupled with how to transform the sector and the system to talk about not only low-carbon transport, but a good quality transport and dignified transport, et cetera.

But in general electrified transport will be a great contribution to reducing emissions in that sector.

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