Reframing the Pursuit of a Carbon-free Future as a Social Good

Conflicts are resolved at a negotiating table,” former Costa Rican President Óscar Arias has said. And it was in this spirit that 197 countries signed the Paris Agreement (to date, 179 states have ratified the Agreement) to limit the adverse effects of climate change — thereby attempting to avoid or mitigate climate change-induced conflicts and threats.

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Anna Skowron and Rob van Riet

The 2015 landmark deal aims to limit global warming to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial limits” and calls for efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C. Exceeding these temperature limits would have disastrous consequences for life on Earth, from more and increasingly severe extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts, to irreversible changes to ecosystems and thus the way we live, produce and consume.

While the Paris Agreement offers hope to our efforts to stave off the worst effects of climate change, existing policy measures and legal frameworks aiming to implement these commitments often fall short. To limit climate change to 1.5°C, we will have to take drastic steps towards a comprehensive decarbonisation of our economies and societies. This means a systemic change of our energy system towards 100% Renewable Energy (RE).

For some countries, the shift to 100%RE could even mean the difference between climate migration, the loss of livelihoods, increased health risks and poverty, or a life of dignity and prosperity. Among them are the 48 members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), who announced back in 2016 that they will transition to 100%RE by mid-century at the latest. Yet, for these (but really, all) countries to be spared the worst consequences of climate change, the biggest polluting nations will also have to rapidly transition to an energy system powered by renewables.

"The link between energy and development thus becomes the link between renewable energy and sustainable development."

Costa Rica is leading the way

The small Central American nation of Costa Rica is one of the frontrunners when it comes to the energy transition. Roughly 95–98% of the country’s electricity has come from renewable sources since 2014, and it managed to run on 100%RE for 300 days in 2017. However, despite the nearly 100%RE electricity production, almost 70% of the country’s energy consumption still comes from fossil fuels, as gas is still widely used for cooking and fuel used for vehicles. But the newly-elected President, 38-year old Carlos Alvarado Quesada, has vowed to fully decarbonise the country’s economy and make Costa Rica the first carbon-neutral nation in the world, by no later than 2020.

Perhaps it’s not surprising this bold announcement came from Costa Rica. The country is recognised as a leader on environmental conservation, biodiversity, eco-tourism and social protection policies. But it was this comment made by the new President that juxtaposed the decarbonisation move with another celebrated policy move by the country: “that [clean energy] transformation would be the ‘abolition of the army’ of our generation.

The comment refers to Costa Rica’s unprecedented decision in 1948 to abolish its standing army — a policy enshrined in the new Constitution a year later. While the armed forces were weak and poorly armed and abolishing it did not come at a large political cost, it was still a landmark move, which was explicitly predicated on diverting military resources into education, development and healthcare. As José Figueres, the leader of the paramilitary group that had won a five-week civil war earlier that year remarked in his speech announcing the decision, the Regular Army of Costa Rica today gives the key to its military base to the schools.

The abolition of the army cemented a broader process in Costa Rica which aimed at transitioning towards a peaceful and stable social democracy, redirecting military spending towards social programs and investment in education, health and the environment, and promoting conflict resolution by non-military means. Today, thanks to this process, the country enjoys some of the highest living standards in the region and is ranked number one in the world by the Happy Planet Index.

By comparing decarbonisation to demilitarisation, the Costa Rican President has offered a useful way to think about the clean energy transition. Just like the abolition of the army, achieving complete decarbonisation of the country’s energy system will require a paradigm shift. Rather than seeing such a transition take place in a strict energy framework, it is better understood as the pursuit of a social good — an intergenerational social good. When understood like this, the commonalities between both processes become more apparent.

Costa Rica’s demilitarisation was designed to favour sustainability and development — the decarbonisation of the country’s economy serves those same purposes. There is increasing recognition of how a shift to renewables can act as a catalyst for sustainable development and operationalization of Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Indeed, this shift serves as a means for socio-economic development and helps to create an equitable society for today’s and future generations.

While it would be naïve to understate the vital role that fossil fuel energy played in improving livelihoods, it would be irresponsible, short-sighted and dangerous to ignore the threats of climate change, environmental degradation and unequal power distributions and the constant threat of war over fossil fuel reserves. Only the abolishment of fossil fuels will ensure that energy will continue to play its fundamental role for the social good and supporting human progress. The link between energy and development thus becomes the link between renewable energy and sustainable development.

Ultimately, the challenge will be to get the bigger nations to commit to 100%RE (or a high penetration of renewables across their energy systems). Only then will we stand a chance of achieving the Paris Agreement goals. But as with every struggle for a social good, leaders are needed to step up and show the way, to build a new norm. Just how Costa Rica showed the world it’s possible to demilitarise to develop, it can show the way in what its President has called the “emancipation” from fossil fuels.


Anna Skowron joined the World Future Council in early 2018 and is working as Project Manager for Climate & Energy. She is managing the organisation’s work on 100%RE and sustainable development and coordinates advocacy on energy finance.
Rob van Riet is the Director of the Climate Energy Programme at the World Future Council. Previously, he coordinated the WFC’s Disarmament Programme from 2010 to 2018. He also served as UK Coordinator for the international network of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament from 2011 to 2018.

This article was published in The Beam #7 — Subscribe now for more