Monday, April 13, 2009

What Happens in Costa Rica (Sort of) Stays in Costa Rica

I do not make it a habit of criticizing Tom Friedman. In fact, I try to avoid his columns altogether, which wouldn’t be a hard thing to do except they always seem to crop up in the “most popular” box on the NYT page and their titles are sometimes so eye-poppingly awful (I mean, (No) Drill, Baby, Drill?...please) that I can’t help taking a look—call it the Auto Accident Rubbernecking Syndrome.

In fact, what began as another HAHA-gotcha rant evolved into something quite different.
…Costa Rica hugely invested in hydro-electric power, wind and geo-thermal, and today it gets more than 95 percent of its energy from these renewables. In 1985, it was 50 percent hydro, 50 percent oil. More interesting, Costa Rica discovered its own oil five years ago but decided to ban drilling — so as not to pollute its politics or environment! What country bans oil drilling?
There are many things to admire about Costa Rica. In a region where democracy has had a spotty track record, it has an uninterrupted 60 year record of twelve presidential elections generally regarded as fair and transparent. It has a constitutional ban on a military and actually means it. And, as Tom Friedman marvels, it has an eco-friendly national policy that only Greenpeace could find fault with. But getting “more than 95 percent of its energy from these renewables” is not one of them. That claim of his is, at best, literally a half-truth.

According to the IEA’s 2006 Energy Balance for Costa Rica, it produced 568 thousand tons of oil equivalent in hydroelectricity, 1068 TOEs in geothermal, etc., and 709 TOEs in combustible renewable and waste. But it also imported 43 TOEs coal and peat, 673 TOEs crude oil, 1635 TOEs petroleum products (exports 111 TOEs), and 13 TOEs electricity (exports 5 TOEs)*. In other words, Costa Rica satisfies half of its energy requirements with fossil fuels, which is all imported. In other words, nothing has changed in relative terms since 1985. By Friedman’s standards, Japan also produces “more than 95 percent of its energy from these renewables” (a literally incredible achievement, since, by the same criteria, I’m reasonably confident that Japan got more than half of its energy from fossil fuels in the 1950s), but no one thanks us for that, and rightfully so.

But renewables come with their own issues. For one thing, they are finite. There is only so much hydro and geothermal potential on this planet, and is often inconveniently located. Costa Rica’s success story is not scalable, nor easily transferrable. Moreover, they carry environmental costs of their own, particularly hydropower dams, which can have climate-altering consequences. Biomass comes with its own constraints. It is telling that in Costa Rica today, the end user simply burns wood for its heat. Cellulosic ethanol as a commercial undertaking is a thing of the future, and for Costa Rica, that will mean replacing some of its tropical rainforests with fast-growing mono-crop trees that come with their own ecological and environmental tolls. I do not know if grassy plant sources will work on a commercial scale in Costa Rica—the people there are looking into it—but they will compete with food for planting space. I suppose Costa Rica can import ethanol from Brazil, but that merely shifts the problems to the global stage.

To repeat, Costa Rica’s ways with regard to renewables are not easily replicable elsewhere. For example, I looked into China’s Three Gorges Dam in the mid-90s when it was still in the early stages of construction. I remember learning that for all its size, the electricity that would be produced upon its completion would be barely enough to meet one year’s increase in electricity demand—and remember, this was in the mid-90s—and thinking, is that all? And China cut down most of its forests thousands of years ago. Costa Rica itself will bump up against constraints of its own in its quest to become a carbon-neutral society as it increases its energy consumption to, say, OECD levels. So imagine the constraints and pressures that China, with its 1.3 billion people and domestic resource profile heavily weighted towards coal faces.

This is not to belittle Costa Rica’s achievements nor belittle its goal of carbon-neutrality. And to be fair to Friedman, he does not ignore fossil fuels. In fact, he mentions a 3.5% carbon tax whose proceeds go among other things to protecting forests. This appears to be working, as Costa Rican forests have grown in dramatic contrast to the ongoing deforestation in so much of what we used to call the Third World, yet another testament to Costa Rica’s success. But Japan for example imposes heavy taxes on fossil fuels** and still winds up consuming far more fossil fuels per capita than Costa Rica. Unusual among OECD member countries, it is two-thirds covered by forest, but that has nothing to do with its energy tax regime.

In short, Costa Rica’s strategy may be working for Costa Rica, but there’s no assurance that it will continue to do so; even if it does, it will not be the answer to the global question. So if global warming is a serious problem that requires more than a token net emission-limitation strategy, there is a need to:
1) accept the limitations of renewables while continuing R&D;
2) expand nuclear power while making lifecycle management (for both fuel and plant) a top priority;
3) implement a heavy, balanced carbon tax regime that works on the global level***; and
4) put serious money into research on more exotic long-shot technologies such as carbon capture and nuclear fusion.
It is also helpful to limit population growth. I think that the fact that Costa Rica’s total fertility rate is 2.14 children born per woman, or just enough for the long-term maintenance of its population, helps it in comparison to more growth-oriented nations. But even with all this, we may wind up having to make dramatic and painful cuts in energy consumption, a subject that I have yet to see Friedman address****. The alternative to all this is a mitigation-centric strategy (another unpalatable option not addressed by Friedman****), which actually makes more sense to Japan—given its natural geography and long-term demographics—in comparison to most other countries than is generally realized.

Incidentally, there’s a lesson here that goes well beyond the environment, and that is the value of good governance—what 60 years of uninterrupted representative democracy can give its people. That is where Costa Rica stands out from most, if not all, of its Latin American neighbors. In that sense, it reminds me of Botswana in Africa than anyplace else. Let’s hope that South Africa does not go in the wrong direction, where the stakes are much higher.

* Crude oil stock rose 11 TOEs while petroleum products stock fell 30 TOEs.
** A pure carbon tax would require major rebalancing, which I may go into on another occasion.
*** Without a global undertaking, carbon-intensive production will shift even more decisively to countries such as China, Brazil, and (to a lesser degree) India.
**** I’ll be happy if someone can point to an online source to the contrary.


Jan Moren said...

Not to take away your greater point (as usual), but a minor point that is often overlooked: The amount if feasibly extractable uranium is large but not infinite. Numbers I have seen are all over the place and I have not enough experience to determine which are credible, but many estimations predict uranium to stop being economically feasible before the end of the century, and most likely well before then. Some otherwise reliable people and organizations seem to be talking about 2030's to 40's as the time when demand will outstrip supply and it will become as unreliable a power source as oil is becoming today.

Jun Okumura said...

You’re right, Janne. I know that I tend to gloss over the very real resource limits (two words: China, and India) on nuclear energy; not as bad as they are with natural gas, the flavor of the moment, but it ain’t coal either. That’s where the Japanese fascination with the fast breeder reactor comes in. It’s certainly more realistic than pinning our long-term hopes on a fusion fix, but it has also been very hard going so far. Nothing is easy, I guess, which is why I find Friedman’s shallow, “you won’t believe what I just saw!” boosterism so annoying.

You know what, perhaps each news outlet should set a term limit on its columnists. But then, with most everybody available on the Internet, maybe it doesn’t matter much anymore.

Jan Moren said...

"You know what, perhaps each news outlet should set a term limit on its columnists. "

Or, you could just not read him of course. But suspect you actually crave that feeling of indignant outrage :)

Jun Okumura said...

No. Because they tend to become stale, predictable, and less accountable. I only write about Friedman because...okay, because he annoys me.

In this vein, I've long marveled at what Dave Barry, Gary Larsen, and Puccini managed to do. Michael Jordan had to come back twice before he finally called it quits.

Jun Okumura said...

Incidentally, I do like writers who can make their high dudgeons serve them well—Camille Paglia, Christopher Hitchens, and Glenn Greenwald, liberals all broadly speaking. I think that conservative writers tend to do better when they keep their cool, though Bill O’Reilly does a good job on TV at using his anger in my view.

MTC said...

Okumura-san -

Friedman blows it through a false cognate, misunderstanding the Spanish word energia to mean "energy" when in the context it clearly means "power."

National Geographic made the same damn mistake last year:

Jun Okumura said...

Yeah, I see your point, MTC. These examples reinforce another argument of mine, that in journalism, literacy in the local vernacular is useful. Having said that, Friedman should have shown some common sense by recognizing that some things, like automobiles, aircraft and ships, run on fossil fuels and that their needs cannot possibly be satisfied with 5% of total energy consumption. If he can accept something like that, then his understanding of his latest favorite subject (energy, security and environment) must be appallingly shallow. I’m not sure how National Geographic came up with 80%.