Arenal Volcano and monkey. Pura vida yo.
Photo: Getty

If you’re looking for a beacon of climate hope in our dark, wretched world, look to Costa Rica. The country accounts for a fraction of the world’s carbon emissions, but something like 99 percent of global ambition to address climate change. Case in point: this week, its new president announced he plans to make the country fossil fuel-free by 2021.

The country first announced its intent go carbon neutral by 2021 way back in 2008, by relying on its tropical forests to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But explicitly signaling that it wants to end the use of fossil fuels entirely takes things an ambitious step further.

“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,” Carlos Alvarado Quesada said in his first presidential speech on Wednesday. “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.”

Latin American countries have been some of the most aggressive in terms of their commitment to fighting climate change, and Costa Rica is no exception. In many ways, it’s the leader in a region very concerned about what the future holds.

The country has already basically decarbonized its energy system, with renewables producing 99 percent of its energy needs. Ticos got their electricity solely from renewables for 300 days last year with the vast majority of that coming from hydropower (there are some issues with dams and methane, but that’s for another post).

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But the fossil fuel ban is aimed squarely at the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions Costa Rica’s got left: transportation. According to data collected by the World Resources Institute, transportation accounts for 35 percent of Costa Rica’s emissions. Former United Nations climate chief and Costa Rican Christiana Figueres has called transportation the nation’s “Achilles heel” when it comes to reducing emissions.

Curtailing fossil fuel use and building out electric vehicle charging infrastructure is one of the surest ways to make those emissions disappear. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stieglitz is with the Tico government and me on this one. Here’s what he wrote in the Guardian the same day Alvarado Quesada announced the fossil fuel ban:

Because Costa Rica is already so green, a carbon tax would not raise as much money as elsewhere. But, because virtually all of the country’s electricity is clean, a shift to electric cars would be more effective in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Such a tax could help Costa Rica become the first country where electric cars dominate, moving it still closer to the goal of achieving a carbon-neutral economy.

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To show what’s possible, Alvarado Quesada arrived in San Jose at the start of his presidency on a hydrogen-powered bus, according to the Independent. The Costa Rican government also just got a shipment of new electric vehicles, showing it plans to walk the walk.

Whether the government can completely cut fossil fuels out of the energy mix in just three years isn’t clear, with no details of any specific policies laid out yet. Building out charging infrastructure while retiring gas-powered cars in that timeframe is a tall order, particularly with surging in car ownership and a huge network of buses that locals and tourists alike use to criss cross the country.

It’ll require moonshots from all countries, and for Costa Rica and its 0.03 percent of global emissions, the moon looks like a transportation untethered from fossil fuels.