Monica Araya

A small country with big ideas to get rid of fossil fuels

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0:12

How do we build a society without fossil fuels?

0:17

This is a very complex challenge, and I believe developing countries could take the lead in this transition. And I'm aware that this is a contentious statement, but the reality is that so much is at stake in our countries if we let fossil fuels stay at the center of our development. We can do it differently. And it's time, it really is time, to debunk the myth that a country has to choose between development on the one hand and environmental protection, renewables, quality of life, on the other.

1:00

I come from Costa Rica, a developing country. We are nearly five million people, and we live right in the middle of the Americas, so it's very easy to remember where we live. Nearly 100 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources, five of them.

1:25

(Applause)

1:29

Hydropower, geothermal, wind, solar, biomass.

1:38

Did you know that last year, for 299 days, we did not use any fossil fuels in order to generate all our electricity? It's a fantastic achievement, and yet, it hides a paradox, which is that nearly 70 percent of all our energy consumption is oil.

2:10

Why? Because of our transportation system, which is totally dependent on fossil fuels, like it is in most countries. So if we think of the energy transition as a marathon, the question is, how do we get to the finish line, how do we decarbonize the rest of the economy? And it's fair to say that if we don't succeed, it's difficult to see who will. So that is why I want to talk to you about Costa Rica, because I believe we are a great candidate in pioneering a vision for development without fossil fuels.

2:50

If you know one thing about our country, it's that we don't have an army. So I'm going to take you back to 1948. That year, the country was coming out of civil war. Thousands of Costa Ricans had died, and families were bitterly split. And yet, a surprising idea won the hearts and minds: we would reboot the country, and that Second Republic would have no army. So we abolished it. And the president at the time, José Figueres, found a powerful way by smashing the walls of an army base. The following year, 1949, we made that decision permanent in the new constitution, and that is why I can tell you that story nearly 70 years later. And I'm grateful. I'm grateful they made that decision before I was born, because it allowed me and millions of others to live in a very stable country.

4:00

And you might be thinking that it was good luck, but it wasn't. There was a pattern of deliberate choices. In the '40s, Costa Ricans were given free education and free health care. We called that social guarantees. By abolishing the army, we were able to turn military spending into social spending, and that was a driver of stability. In the '50s —

4:28

(Applause)

4:33

In the '50s, we started investing in hydropower, and that kept us away from the trap of using fossil fuels for electricity generation, which is what the world is struggling with today. In the '70s we invested in national parks, and that kept us away from the deeply flawed logic of growth, growth, growth at any cost that you see others embracing, especially in the developing world. In the '90s, we pioneered payments for ecosystem services, and that helped us reverse deforestation and boosted ecotourism, which today is a key engine of growth. So investing in environmental protection did not hurt our economy. Quite the opposite.

5:18

And it doesn't mean we are perfect, and it doesn't mean we don't have contradictions. That's not the point. The point is that, by making our own choices, we were able to develop resilience in dealing with development problems.

5:35

Also, if you take a country like ours, the GDP per capita is around 11,000 dollars, depending on how you measure it. But according to the Social Progress Index, we are an absolute outlier when it comes to turning GDP into social progress. Abolishing the army, investing in nature and people, did something very powerful, too. It shaped the narrative, the narrative of a small country with big ideas, and it was very empowering to grow up with that narrative.

6:10

So the question is, what is the next big idea for this generation? And I believe what comes next is for this generation to let go of fossil fuels for good, just as we did with the army.

6:29

Fossil fuels create climate change. We know that, and we know how vulnerable we are to the impacts of climate change. So as a developing country, it is in our best interest to build development without fossil fuels that harm people in the first place. Because why would we continue importing oil for transportation if we can use electricity instead?

6:59

Remember, this is the country where electricity comes from water in our rivers, heat from volcanoes, wind turbines, solar panels, biowaste. Abolishing fossil fuels means disrupting our transportation system so that we can power our cars, buses and trains with electricity instead of dirty energy.

7:31

And transportation, let me tell you, has become an existential issue for us Costa Ricans, because the model we have is not working for us. It's hurting people, it's hurting companies, and it's hurting our health.

7:46

Because when policies and infrastructure fail, this is what happens on a daily basis. Two hours in the morning, two hours in the evening. I don't understand why we have to accept this as normal. It's offensive to have to waste our time like this every single day. And this highway is actually quite good compared to what you see in other countries where traffic is exploding. You know, Costa Ricans call this "presa." Presa means "imprisoned." And people are turning violent in a country that is otherwise happy in pura vida. It's happening. So a lot is at stake.

8:35

The good news is that when we talk about clean transportation and different mobility, we're not talking about some distant utopia out there. We're talking about electric mobility that is happening today. By 2022, electric cars and conventional cars are expected to cost the same, and cities are already trying electric buses. And these really cool creatures are saving money, and they reduce pollution. So if we want to get rid of oil-based transportation, we can, because we have options now that we didn't have before. It's really exciting.

9:21

But of course, some get very uncomfortable with this idea, and they will come and they will tell you that the world is stuck with oil, and so is Costa Rica, so get real. That's what they tell you. And you know what the answer to that argument is? That in 1948, we didn't say the world is stuck with armies, so let's keep our army, too. No, we made a very brave choice, and that choice made the whole difference.

9:52

So it's time for this generation to be brave again and abolish fossil fuels for good. And I'll give you three reasons why we have to do this.

10:02

First, our model of transportation and urbanization is broken, so this is the best moment to redefine our urban and mobility future. We don't want cities that are built for cars. We want cities for people where we can walk and we can use bikes. And we want public transportation, lots of it, public transportation that is clean and dignifying. Because if we continue adding fleets of conventional cars, our cities will become unbearable.

10:39

Second, we have to change, but incremental change is not going to be sufficient. We need transformational change. And there are some incremental projects in my country, and I am the first one to celebrate them. But let's not kid ourselves. We're not talking about ending up with really beautiful electric cars here and a few electric buses there while we keep investing in the same kind of infrastructure, more cars, more roads, more oil. We're talking about breaking free from oil, and you cannot get there through incrementalism.

11:19

Third, and you know this one, the world is hungry for inspiration. It craves stories of success in dealing with complex issues, especially in developing countries. So I believe Costa Rica can be an inspiration to others, as we did last year when we disclosed that for so many days we were not using any fossil fuels in order to generate all our electricity. The news went viral around the world. Also, and this makes me extremely proud, a Costa Rican woman, Christiana Figueres, played a decisive role in the negotiations of the Paris climate agreement. So we have to protect that legacy and be an example.

12:18

So what comes next? The people. How do we get people to own this? How do we get people to believe that it's possible to build a society without fossil fuels? A lot of work from the ground up is needed.

12:40

That is why, in 2014, we created Costa Rica Limpia. "Limpia" means "clean," because we want to empower and we want to inspire citizens. If citizens don't get engaged, clean transportation decisions will be bogged down by endless, and I mean endless, technical discussions, and by avalanches of lobbying by various established interests. Wanting to be a green country powered by renewables is already part of our story. We should not let anybody take that away from us.

13:23

Last year, we brought people from our seven provinces to talk about climate change in terms that matter to them, and we also brought this year another group of Costa Ricans to talk about renewable energy. And you know what? These people disagree on almost everything except on renewable energy and clean transportation and clean air. It brings people together.

13:49

And the key to real participation is to help people not to feel small. People feel powerless, and they are tired of not being heard. So what we do is concrete things, and we translate technical issues into citizen language to show that citizens have a role to play and can play it together. For the first time, we're tracking the promises that were made on clean transportation, and politicos know that they have to deliver it, but the tipping point will come when we form coalitions — citizens, companies, champions of public transportation — that will make electric mobility the new normal, especially in a developing country.

14:33

By the time the next election comes, I believe every candidate will have to disclose where they stand on the abolition of fossil fuels. Because this question has to enter our mainstream politics. And I'm telling you, this is not a question of climate policy or environmental agenda. It's about the country that we want and the cities that we have and the cities that we want and who makes that choice. Because at the end of the day, what we have to show is that development with renewable energy is good for the people, for Costa Ricans that are alive today and especially for those who haven't been born.

15:20

This is our National Museum today. It's bright and peaceful, and when you stand up in front of it, it's really hard to believe these were military barracks at the end of the '40s. We started a new life without an army in this place, and here is where our abolition of fossil fuels will be announced one day. And we will make history again.

15:46

Thank you.

15:47

(Applause)

How do we build a society without fossil fuels? Using her native Costa Rica as an example of positive action on environmental protection and renewables, climate advocate Monica Araya outlines a bold vision for a world committed to clean energy in all sectors.

About the speaker
Monica Araya · Climate advocate

In 2015 Monica Araya's native Costa Rica produced almost all of its electricity from renewable sources. She advocates for the next step: a fossil-fuel-free world.

In 2015 Monica Araya's native Costa Rica produced almost all of its electricity from renewable sources. She advocates for the next step: a fossil-fuel-free world.