Monday, April 13, 2009

A Costa Rican Success Story; Why Not Here?

Saturday's New York times included the latest column by Thomas Friedman, entitled "(No) Drill, Baby, Drill." Friedman discusses the tremendous progress made in Costa Rica over the past 20 years with regard to that country's move towards reliance on renewable energy, and he brings out some interesting facts, including:
  • As of today, 95 percent of the country's energy is generated through renewable sources;

  • Five years ago, the country discovered oil, but refused to drill so as not to impact either the national political scene or the environment; and

  • A 3.5 percent carbon tax now provides dividends and assistance to over 7,000 citizens.

Friedman closes with this admonition:

As we debate a new energy future, we need to remember that nature provides this incredible range of economic services — from carbon-fixation to water filtration to natural beauty for tourism. If government policies don’t recognize those services and pay the people who sustain nature’s ability to provide them, things go haywire. We end up impoverishing both nature and people. Worse, we start racking up a bill in the form of climate-changing greenhouse gases, petro-dictatorships and bio-diversity loss that gets charged on our kids’ Visa cards to be paid by them later. Well, later is over. Later is when it will be too late.

The Costa Rican environmental situation is certainly a best-case scenario, but what Friedman does not cover is the cost that the government incurred as a result of its switch from a 5o percent oil/50 percent hydro base of energy production to the current level of 95 percent renewable sources. In a country the size of Costa Rica, the costs were probably significant in relation to its economy - but when compared with a nation the size of the United States, how would those costs transfer?

The Costa Rican government laid some strong groundwork early on by combining several energy-related positions into one office, and by making immediate investment in conversion away from an oil-based economy. Two things to keep in mind, however, are that the process there was started 20 years ago, and the national costs overall would have been lower. Here in this country, we are already decades behind the curve; there has been no effort to consolidate those with oversight over the environment and energy sectors, and to this point - other than talk in broad terms - there has been no serious effort to look at renewable energy. And with all of the talk about our energy independence, why has there been no consensus among the Republicans and Democrats over the best way to achieve - much less even try for - reaching that goal and getting off foreign oil (as advocated most heavily in recent months by T. Boone Pickens)?

So we come to the current discussion about cap-and-trade and carbon tax as a way of dealing with greenhouse gas emissions in this country. As a consumer, my biggest concern about either of them is that it will result in higher energy costs; the money energy producers will need to pay to refurbish plants, install GHG monitoring and recording equipment, upgrade carbon recapture technology, pay taxes on the tonnage of GHG emissions, and/or purchase carbon allowances from producers who fall below the mandatory cap will all be tacked on to the bills you and I get in the mail for power consumption - and at the gas pump. On top of that, why should we be responsible for paying for aggressive energy policy when India, Russia and China produce significant higher levels of GHG.

Despite the ineqality in size (with population, budget, and overall land area) between Costa Rica and the United States, Friedman does do a great job of pointing out the sucess story that occurred when the Costa Rican government put its mind to solving environmental problems. My question, aside from wondering why he didn't figure the costs of such a program into his column, is when our government will get serious about ways of solving the problems we face here? Saying that we're going to get off foreign oil, rely on our own production sources, etc. etc. is great - but talk, unlike the solutions, is cheap.

We should start now (actually, should have started thirty years ago) if we're going to come close to matching 1/10 of the success of our neighbor to the south.

1 comment:

  1. It is a myth . Friedman has no clue about Costa Rica. Here is the annotated truth by people who know. There is not one of 5o US states that would tolerate the pollution and inadequate power blackouts that plague Costa Rica.