monica araya

Monica Araya, founder of Costa Rica Limpia: “It’s not enough to have a national strategy, it is necessary to bring it to the local governments”

Author | Esther Fuldauer

Monica Araya is the co-founder of Costa Rica Limpia, as well as an activist and incubator with over 20 years of experience in renewable energy and electric mobility in Latin America

In February, the president of Costa Rica Carlos Alvarado Quesada announced the country would be free of fossil fuels by 2050. To see a politician support a fossil-free country would have been inconceivable years ago. It was only because a strong grass-roots movement and civil society’s determination that politicians followed suit.

The Paris Agreement made it clear that the world would have to drastically reduce its emissions if it is to reach the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius before we reach a point of no return. While larger economies are struggling to change, Costa Rica a small country of the Caribbean, is showing the world that it can be done.

Heading this civic movement is Monica Araya, founder of Costa Rica Limpia, an organization that promotes clean development through citizen engagement.

We asked her what is the secret to this achievement and how can other communities transition to electric mobility and become carbon free.

What does it take to engage citizens in sustainability projects and climate change adaptation?

Working with citizens we have realized that it’s really important trying to help people understand that changes will come sooner if they get involved.

Another thing we do is we work out the visual communication part a lot. Why? People are simply fixed on the complaint theme. “Everything is wrong, nothing works, all is too complicated,” and we need to help people out by shedding light into the subject, setting the accent on the “nice” side, an inspiring story that focuses on the gains.

This would be a visual, for example: pollution in the city. Think about a clean technology, non polluting, which uses electricity instead of gas.

A politician would say this is not the right moment. It’s never the moment to act. There’s always other priorities. So it’s our priority to do this by ourselves, citizens. Until now all decisions were made from the top-down, literally falling over those at the bottom.

A politician would say this is not the right moment. It’s never the moment to act. There’s always other priorities.

Have you found the necessary political accountability to carry out climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies and to transition to an electric mobility?

To adapt to external changes, a hurricane, a tropical storm, it’s going to be very important that adaptation strategies are very decentralized. For example, there are parts of the country where there are risks of flooding. It’s very different from the other side of the country, where there is risk of draught. So strategies are going to be very different.

It’s not enough to have a national strategy, it is necessary to bring it to the local governments. People have the capacity of understanding who is governing, how well they do so in each municipality and who is making the decisions to know how to impact.

What regulatory tools are you using in Costa Rica to accelerate the transition towards electric mobility?

The first tool is the law of promotion of electric mobility which was approved January 2018. In order to get it approved by the congress there was a work of almost three years.

We had to build a coalition to get it approved in the Congress. We had very savvy people in electricity markets, people very passionate about clean technologies, people who were working in climate change, people from the academia, and obviously some companies, mainly electric vehicle manufacturers and banks. Without this coalition there wouldn’t have been this law in Costa Rica.

People have the capacity of understanding who is governing, how well they do so in each municipality and who is making the decisions to know how to impact.

In the year 2016, many congressists didn’t find this prioritary. In 2017 they started seeing people’s interest. We made many radio programs, electric mobility festivals, we talked about the benefits. For instance, we did a medical forum where we talked about how health was affected by breathing air polluted by cars and buses. And then it obviously got to a point where it was unstoppable.

For a country such as Costa Rica whose energy is already 99% from renewable sources, It’s important to use electric mobility as a leverage to keep it growing.

What can you tell me about the actions and achievements of Costa Rica in the context of international collaboration and accountability?

In the context of climate change, we have the great fortune of having Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican woman, who was at the epicenter of the negotiations which succeeded with the Paris Agreement. For us it was very important to see how a small country like ours had a person in the process who was helping the world reach an agreement. A diplomatic labor which turned out successful.

Every country in the world had to take to Paris a self-imposed climate change target. This means that what Spain does, what Brasil does or what Egypt does is not being imposed by the Agreement. The Agreement is the sum of all the climate targets chosen by each country.

In the case of Costa Rica, a small country, the self-imposed target has been qualified as one of the most ambitious. It’s an absolute carbon reduction, while other countries only set relative reductions.

Image | Monica Araya