In late 2017, Costa Rica made international news by announcing it had gone 300 days without using fossil fuels for its electricity needs. Then, in 2018, newly elected President Carlos Alvarado declared his intention to preside over a carbon-neutral Costa Rica by 2021. Hidden beneath these headlines was a startling admission: according to Costa Rica’s clean development adviser, “…nearly 70 percent of all [Costa Rica’s] energy consumption is oil.”
Like many countries, Costa Rica’s biggest fossil-fuel challenge is not electricity; it’s transportation (mostly cars), which produce close to half of their emissions. The Costa Rican appetite for cars has shown no signs of slowing, in large part due to the country’s underwhelming public transit options. Even with a head-start in the electricity sector, this growing transportation sector makes it unclear how feasible President Alvarado’s emissions targets are.
Costa Rica is not unique. Across the globe, as the renewable electricity sector has started to flex its muscles, the same renewable energies have struggled to find a foothold in the transportation sector. Even optimistic estimates suggest electric vehicles (EVs) will make up just a quarter of all cars by 2040. While progress, this timeline stands in sharp contrast with scientific warnings about the urgency of our climate crisis. Additionally, large developing countries like China and India are developing robust middle classes, which will only increase the demand for cars.
But even EVs may not be the solution. Batteries for EVs are made of lithium or nickel, both of which come with a steep environmental price and are linked to abysmal labor practices. Maintaining a large fleet of EVs also mandates a substantial amount of energy, which, even on a 100 percent renewable energy grid, can strain an already unstable system. EVs also have a much lower range than traditional cars, necessitating a massive network of charging stations.
This, in addition to the inefficiency of air and maritime travel, leads me to believe there is more to achieving a carbon neutral society than replacing our old modes of transit with more efficient versions. In the words of the International Renewable Energy Agency, decarbonizing the transport sector “…requires a fundamental change in the nature and structure of transport demand.”
An in-depth study of renewable energies in the transportation sector, conducted by Antonio Garcia Olivares and his colleagues at the Spanish National Research Council, concluded the following: “A renewable transport system is feasible but not necessarily compatible with the usual exponential growth of resource consumption.” In short, we can’t simply switch out dirty consumption for clean consumption; we must reduce consumption, period. Relying too heavily on EVs or the like, which in turn rely on finite natural resources, will lead humanity down another destructive path.
The study recommends the “introduction of new mechanisms which may create prosperity without necessarily increasing the consumption of resources and materials.” In other words, unencumbered capitalism, the ideological force which has shaped the modern world, must be reevaluated.
By design, capitalism requires consumption and production to be constantly ramped up, despite existing in a world of limited resources. In the interest of human survival, the overconsumption model must be abandoned.
In order to accomplish this tremendous feat, it’s imperative we change not just the mode, but the way we travel and interact with space. Urban sprawl, private cars and mass air travel are untenable. Relatively dense cities, mass public transit, bikes, small fleets of EVs and electric rail travel are the future. Local agriculture and sustainable farming will play an important role as well, working together to reduce the need for the shipping and trucking industries.
This new world vision clashes violently with our present reality, but it is the only way out of our climate crisis. Of course, political roadblocks in the United States alone would make this vision hard to execute. If moderately regulating guns is impossible, just imagine what will happen when it’s time for America to hand over the car keys. Still, it’s a vision worth striving for. Without it, a bumpy road lies ahead.
Harry Zehner is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.