Costa Rica: a mythical land that does not use fossil fuels

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I don’t read Quartz much, probably for good reason. Their basic fact checking abilities appear to be shockingly bad. Here are excerpts from the last two things I have read there.

First up, from a story about coal use in China,

slowing the growth of CO2 emissions, in China and globally, will not be enough to stop runaway climate change, a tipping point at which our atmosphere could change unpredictably. To avoid reaching that point, scientists believe that we should avoid crossing a concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere of 400 parts per million. Before the industrial revolution, CO2 levels were at 280ppm; they have already since risen to 382ppm.

This story told use that we must avoid atmospheric CO2 emissions exceeding 400 ppm. Well, we already have. Of course, it would have helped if the journalist who wrote the piece had checked the year – 2006 – he took the information from.

And today, there is a story about how Costa Rica is “now running completely on renewable energy”:

Thanks to some heavy rainfall this year, Costa Rica’s hydropower plants alone are generating nearly enough electricity to power the entire country. With a boost from geothermal, solar, and wind energy sources, the country doesn’t need an ounce of coal or petroleum to keep the lights on. Of course, the country has a lot of things going in its favor. Costa Rica is a small nation, has less than 5 million people, doesn’t have much of a manufacturing industry that would require a lot of energy, and is filled with volcanoes and other topographical features that lend themselves to renewable energy.

Nonetheless, it is both a noble and significant feat for a nation of any size to eschew fossil fuels completely.

So, there you go. Costa Rica does not use fossil fuels. How did they achieve this, and how can everyone else copy them?

This made me curious. According to Expedia, I can book a 7 day holiday in Costa Rica. This will involve travelling from Heathrow Airport and arriving at Costa Rica, in a plane made by Boeing and powered by kerosene, a fossil fuel.

Hold on. Perhaps Costa Rica has not eschewed fossil fuels completely. Easily available statistics will tell us a more accurate story. Let’s try CDIAC’s data for carbon emissions from the combustion of the fossil fuels Costa Rica has eschewed. Here is the most recent data.

costaSo, you see this mistake made. It’s an old one. We use fossil fuels for all kinds of things. Heating our homes, driving cars, flying planes, shipping tooth picks from China. Yet, a lot of media coverage seems to believe we only use them for generating electricity.

And the Quartz story provides us with another example:

Denmark, which gets 40% of its energy from wind, wants to ditch fossil fuels completely by 2050.

More accurately, Denmark gets 40% of its electricity, not energy, from wind. But this is an old story.

So, here is a very good rule of thumb:

If a news story tells you a country gets X% of its energy from renewables, it really means that it gets X% of its electricity from renewables.

I believe this rule of thumb is as reliable as the one about the sun coming up each morning.




4 thoughts on “Costa Rica: a mythical land that does not use fossil fuels

    johnrussell40 said:
    March 23, 2015 at 11:00 pm

    It looks like another version of the story has managed to correct itself:


      Robert Wilson said:
      March 23, 2015 at 11:56 pm

      I hadn’t even noticed anywhere other than Quartz. But almost everywhere else is dreadful nonsense. You would actually think that Costa Rica was the first country to ever get this much electricity from hydro.


    Arthur said:
    March 29, 2015 at 10:27 pm

    it’s the 100% fossil-free purity that matters!!!


    […] 9:41 PM – 26 Mar 2015That’s not true, and this subtle error pops up a lot in energy coverage. “Electricity” and “energy” aren’t perfectly […]


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