What PH can learn from Costa Rica

01:02 AM September 28, 2016

NANJING, China—The Duterte administration is gazing at the Americas in search of successful public policy to mimic. Cuba’s experience in achieving universal healthcare coverage and Colombia’s experience in the war on drugs are seen as public policy innovations worthy of emulation. This administration imagines a future for Filipinos using some of the compasses that have emerged in the Americas, but another country has yet another lens through which the Philippines can view its future in energy: Costa Rica.

Indeed, the Philippines can learn a lot from this small Central American country in terms of its energy policy. For two straight months, in July and August, Costa Rica did not burn any fossil fuels to generate its electricity. In those months, it replicated its 300 days of 100-percent renewable electricity generation in 2015, mostly from its hydropower and geothermal systems. Hydroelectric dams provided close to 80 percent of this electricity, and geothermal roughly 12 percent. The remainder came from wind, some biomass, and some solar.


Costa Rica’s transition to renewable energy was possible because of its high regard for its natural environment. This strong environmentalism has a long history that can be traced back to 1949 when, at the end of a military dictatorship, Costa Rica decided to embark on a development pathway that puts premium on ecotourism. Today, many regard Costa Rica as a paradisal haven.

Consistent with its pro-environment stance, Costa Rica aims to be carbon-neutral by 2085. Its current strong support policy for low-carbon development, coupled with public support, may even speed up this quest. Already, the state-run electric utility is building dozens of wind farms as well as small hydroelectric dams. New geothermal projects are also in the pipeline.


But electricity is only one form of energy service in which Costa Rica is making a dent. It still has thousands of cars running on imported gasoline, and cement plants that burn coal. Since electric vehicles are still expensive, transitioning the transport sector would be very challenging. In addition to transport fuel, construction is expected to remain as the other elephant in the room in the Costa Rican energy transition narrative.

Also noteworthy is that Costa Rica’s success rests largely on its geography and demography. It has a total area of 51,000 square kilometers—about half the size of Mindanao—and a population of 4.87 million. Compare that to Manila, a 13-million-people metropolis. That relatively small population means a smaller energy requirement. Its primary industries—agriculture and tourism—are also less energy-intensive compared to, for example, the Philippine manufacturing industry.

Nevertheless, Costa Rica has shown the world something very impressive—an achievement that should be celebrated as proof that a transition from reliance on fossil fuels to 100-percent renewables is possible. The question now is: Can the Philippines do the same?

Hydropower and geothermal, which provide the majority of Costa Rica’s renewable electricity, are very location-specific. Only a few countries are lucky to have such rich resources. The Philippines is one of the lucky few.

In theory, all of the Philippines’ big rivers can be dammed, but this would displace many Filipinos, their cultures, and their histories. Large dams also impact riverine ecosystems and exacerbate climate change due to sedimentation and decaying vegetation that can lead to potent methane emissions. Furthermore, droughts and seasonal changes in water flow and volume impact hydropower supplies.

The Philippines’ moving to 100-percent renewable energy would, therefore, entail building more small hydro, solar, and wind energy-generation systems, in addition to the existing hydropower capacity. With the prices of both solar and wind decreasing, harvesting the large-scale energy they generate and exploiting them to their maximum potential will provide huge opportunities. Geothermal is also another renewable resource in which the country is very rich. This subterranean energy resource has been assessed to be the second largest in terms of potential worldwide, yet its current contribution to our energy mix remains low.

Indeed, tapping the geothermal potential should be high on the Philippine energy agenda. While a few new sites are being developed countrywide, more viable sites need to be identified, explored and funded. Fast-tracking geothermal development—and also small hydro, wind and solar systems—would require strong policy support that encourages more private investments.


But while policy support is key, the equally important moves are: to reflect the truest price of competing fossil-generated electricity to make renewables competitive; to cut lengthy bureaucratic processes, especially involving permits; to increase the availability and reach of funding facilities for these projects; and to ensure that new renewable energy generation is reliably connected to demand centers. Not to be missed: assurance that electricity will be delivered at affordable prices, and that those with no access to electricity are provided with reliable service.

One can admire Costa Ricans for making fossil fuels history, but one also has to note that their transition did not happen overnight, and that it was not simply a function of their natural resources. A culture of environmentalism harnessed by time and deeply ingrained in their psyche made their success possible. The Philippines has to be mindful of this essential precondition.

Laurence Delina, of Boston University and Harvard University, does research on climate change, energy security, and international development. His book “Strategies for Rapid Climate Mitigation: War mobilisation as Model for Action” was published by Routledge-Earthscan last June. He is from South Cotabato.


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TAGS: Costa Rica, drug war, Energy, Rodrigo Duterte
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