Key words: fossil fuels; alternative energy sources; Reventazón hydro-electricity dam; car ownership growth; pollution levels.
In early January this year  it was widely reported that in 2016 Costa Rica had produced 98% of its electricity without fossil fuels. This is an achievement that few countries have managed, including those that are much larger and richer than Costa Rica, and it is of course an achievement of which Costa Ricans are rightly proud.
Two factors, however, serve to undermine this achievement. First, the reliance of the renewables sector on hydro-electricity generated from large-scale dams; and second the growing use of cars in the country which means that, despite its renewable electricity generation, its demand for oil continues to increase.
Lindsay Fendt in San José reported for The Guardian on 5th January this year that despite the country’s recent investments in wind and geothermal plants, it still regularly produces more than 70% of its electricity each year from dams. Solar power, Fendt suggests, ”has been pushed aside due to political concerns that home-generated [solar] power would cut into the state electricity company’s profits.”
Moreover, she reports that although the Reventazón hydro-electric dam became fully operational last September and can power over half a million homes, it was heavily criticised by environmental groups for its location in a critical wildlife corridor. Its alteration of the flow regime of the Reventazón River also attracted protests.
Costa Rican transport can certainly not claim any pretensions to sustainability, with a massive recent growth in car ownership to a level of 287 cars per 1,000 population – a level above both the world and the Latin American averages. Furthermore, only 2% of the country’s vehicles are hybrids or electric cars that can use the renewable electricity grid. The resulting pollution levels are giving cause for concern, especially in the capital San José.
So, behind Costa Rica’s reputation for environmental sustainable development – a reputation well-deserved relative to most other countries – there remain issues relating to pollution levels which reflect questions over the decisions made by Costa Rican politicians.