Former Costa Rican president and Carbon War Room head José María Figueres on islands, carbon, and global energy use
In 1994 at age 39, José María Figueres was elected president of Costa Rica, becoming the youngest president of a Central American country during modern times. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, his administration focused on sustainable development. Since then, he has served as the chair of a United Nations taskforce, CEO of the World Economic Forum and then Concordia 21, and most recently president of Sir Richard Branson’s nonprofit Carbon War Room. Fresh off travel through parts of Asia with RMI chief scientist Amory Lovins, we asked Figueres about the importance of working with islands, creating low-carbon economies, and how to accelerate transforming global energy use.
Rocky Mountain Institute: Like RMI CEO Jules Kortenhorst, your background spans business and government. Looking at today’s energy and climate challenges, why are market-based solutions — even if bolstered by supportive governmental policies — so important for driving change?
José María Figueres: About 40 percent of global carbon emissions can be profitably avoided today within existing international agreements and national regulations by applying already-proven technologies. RMI and CWR are leaders in helping businesses realize this terrific market opportunity. As we get more capital to flow into financing the transition toward clean energy and lower carbon emissions, we can provide profitable example for others to follow and broaden understanding about these issues at the same time.
RMI: Looking at RMI and Carbon War Room’s collaborative work together in the Caribbean, including the Creating Climate Wealth summit earlier this year, why is focusing on islands so important, given their small contribution to climate change yet great vulnerability in the face of it?
JMF: Working with islands to shift their energy base from fossil fuels to renewables is important for at least three reasons. First, it helps improve the quality of life for island residents, who are burdened with some of the highest electricity prices in the world. Second, such a transition creates jobs, investment possibilities, and entrepreneurial opportunities that render these islands — normally dependent on tourism for the overwhelming bulk of their economies — more competitive. And third, our work with islands can yield shining examples of a successful transition to lower-carbon, clean-energy economies using existing technologies. This will hopefully inspire others to follow in their footsteps, and not only on literal islands. After all, islands need not be surrounded by water. They can be an off-grid mine, a rural community, an isolated military installation, and much more.
RMI: Costa Rica, already known as an ecotourism hot spot and global leader in environmental stewardship, has set a goal to become carbon neutral by 2021. Your energy mix is already almost entirely renewable (mostly hydro plus some geothermal and wind), with an impressively small amount of fossil fuels. As the country embraces diversification with other renewables, such as solar in the Guanacaste region, what lessons can the rest of the world learn from your successes and challenges?
JMF: The first lesson is that renewables are profitable. Powered by renewables Costa Rica has successfully diversified its economy, with a very pronounced and competitive export-oriented bias. Secondly, we are living proof it can be done even among developing nations with scarcer economic resources than the developed world. Thirdly, our experience shows that systemic thinking in addressing these challenges is much better than a “silo” focus.
RMI: What do you see as the most significant barriers that stand in the way of transforming global energy use? With renewables making an increasingly compelling economic case — garnering billions of dollars of global investment, while their costs keep declining, making that investment go further — how can we accelerate their adoption and topple incumbent fossil fuels?
JMF: There is nothing harder than changing cultural attitudes. Most of the world grew up on fossil fuels without thinking of their unintended consequences: increasing carbon emissions driving climate change. Now we must change our habits and practices, and do so within a ten- to fifteen-year window to avoid temperature changes from escalating beyond two degrees Celsius. This requires broadening our understanding with respect to the business opportunities it entails, strong leadership to change present business models, and public-private partnerships to make progress in the short time we have to act.
RMI: With China and the U.S. dominating global oil imports, fossil fuel consumption (especially coal), and carbon emissions, how do smaller countries such as Costa Rica and the Caribbean’s island-nations perceive their place in that landscape?
JMF: Smaller nations face both a great challenge and a great opportunity. The challenge — and it’s not an easy one to come to terms with — is that even if we do everything we can in the smaller nations and reduce our carbon footprint to zero, the world still needs China, the U.S., Brazil, India, and other large players to do more and move faster. The opportunity, though, is for smaller nations to set an example in the transition to low-carbon economies, which hopefully inspires others to follow. Then, the issue becomes one of scaling solutions, rather than proving them in the first place. Smaller nations can become early-adopters proving the case that paves the way for other major world energy powers to follow.