Why Modi should visit Costa Rica

The country has a plan to eliminate fossil fuels. And it’s working

Updated - June 17, 2018 08:53 am IST

Published - June 17, 2018 02:15 am IST

Everybody knows that our Prime Minister loves to travel. In the four years that he has been in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has clocked an impressive number of air miles, going on 40 foreign trips from the U.S. and the U.K. to Uzbekistan, Mozambique and Mongolia. But there’s one country he should plan on visiting soon, particularly if he wants to see his vision of a clean energy-driven India become a reality. And that country is Costa Rica.

Why Costa Rica, you may ask. After all, the Republic of Costa Rica is just a tiny dot on the map, sandwiched between Panama and Nicaragua, with a population of less than half of that of Bengaluru and a GDP less than half the current market value of the Indian tech giant TCS.

Small nation, big achievements

But a tiny country such as this has some remarkable achievements to its credit. In 1949, after a bloody coup in which 2,000 people died, it decided to abolish its army altogether and remains one of the few countries in the world without one. Its citizens receive free education and healthcare (it spends 6.9% of its GDP on education, more than double of India’s measly 2.7%); ranks 66 in the United Nations’ Human Development Index (India ranks 131); was one of the first countries in the world to implement a green tax, which helped reverse deforestation; and has actually managed to implement a ban on single-use plastics.

And it is one of the greenest countries on earth. Last year, the entire Costa Rican grid ran on renewable power for a record 300 days. Besides hydro, wind and solar, it is a world leader in geothermal energy. It plans to move from a staggering 98.6% renewable power base to 100% this year. By 2020 it will become carbon neutral, matching its greenhouse emissions with the carbon emissions it saves.

But the real reason Mr. Modi should visit Costa Rica is to meet its 38-year-old President, Carlos Alvarado. One of the first things the former journalist did on assuming office was to declare that Costa Rica would become the world’s first ‘zero carbon’ economy in two decades, starting with the initial goal of eliminating fossil fuels from the transportation sector by 2021.

Even for a very small country, that’s a very ambitious goal. And like all such goals, it is unlikely to be achieved in that time frame. Costa Rica has one of the fastest-growing car markets in the world (around 25% per year), and nearly half its carbon emissions come from the transport sector. Besides, it is bang in the middle of the Pan American Highway, and banning petrol and diesel within its borders would pretty much kill most of its foreign trade.

But the important thing, says Costa Rican economist Monica Araya, who is also the founder of Costa Rica Limpia (Clean Costa Rica), an organisation which has been working with all stakeholders towards a zero carbon economy, is that if the messaging is strong enough and is backed by a proper plan, and if the right people champion it, “fairy tales can become reality.”

Speaking last month in Montreal at a global summit on sustainable mobility called Movin’ On, a Michelin-sponsored think-fest which has now grown over 20 years into a sort of Davos on sustainable mobility (disclosure: I was there at the invitation of Michelin), Araya outlined the necessary ingredients: a clear vision of desired outcomes, a sustainable road map to reach there and, most importantly, a “coalition of champions” to drive the idea forward among all stakeholders — people, business and the government.

Costa Rica has all three. Carbon reduction is baked into its national development plan. Earlier this year, it eliminated taxes on electric vehicles. More importantly, the government, partnering with civil society groups, has been preaching to the people the benefits of going going electric — demonstrating that it is possible to drive to the beach and back from the capital in an electric car and working with fishermen on electrifying fishing vessels. The President too used a hydrogen fuel bus to the venue to sign the proclamation on eliminating fossil fuels.

India’s case

This is the kind of symbolism and social movement that Mr. Modi is actually good at. Besides, he is already a sustainability convert. He is driving the growth of solar power in India and has already declared that he wants all transport vehicles to be electric by 2030.

That is unlikely to happen without the other ingredients that Araya was talking about. India is one of the world’s largest car markets and the second biggest two wheeler market. Explosive urbanisation is also driving demand for public transportation, while 7%-plus GDP growth and heavy dependence on road transport mean that our problems are likely to get worse faster.

We are the world’s third biggest energy importer, spending roughly $12 billion a month on crude oil alone. We are also home to 13 of the world’s 15 most polluted cities. We are running out of time.

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