Tipping Points

“Do you want bottled water, or a regular water?”

The question, posed to me circa 1986 in a McDonald’s drive-thru, caught me completely off-guard. When I confirmed that the bottled water cost as much as a soft-drink I laughed at the audacity of the pitch and assured the attendant that good ‘ol, somewhat smelly Houston tap water was fine. Who on earth would pay for water?

I do not know if there was a particular tipping point, but the bottled water craze later swept the globe. Many consumers continue to shell out money to receive water in a plastic bottle—even when the source of the water is their own municipal water supply.

This thought ran through my mind when I (and around one hundred others) attended a talk this past weekend here in Cerro Plano given by Ms. Monica Araya. The crux of her presentation, which is also captured in her Ted Talk, is that a complete shift away from reliance on fossil fuels to a new, renewable energy model is possible. She feels that, via a tipping point, this dramatic shift can take place quickly. She views declarations from a number of countries banning the sale of internal combustion engines as soon as 2030 as proof that the shift has already begun.

As a proof statement of how quickly things can change, even when that change is considered audacious and impractical, she offered the corollary of how, in the face of tradition and conventional wisdom, Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948.

She further noted that my adopted country is a world leader in terms of its energy grid, which is fed primarily through hydroelectric power and, to a lesser degree, geothermal and wind sources. If a small country with a population of roughly five million people can make these bold choices in terms of its priorities, and if the world at large is increasingly more receptive to the notion that more internal combustion engines on the roadways is not an answer, perhaps a tipping point away from fossil fuels  is closer than conventional wisdom believes it to be.

Prior to her in-person talk, I watched her Ted Talk and read a number of different, related articles. I absolutely, positively love the idea of a world that runs on clean energy. If there is a way for all of us to safely, and economically, get from point A to point B without creating exhaust fumes why wouldn’t we pursue it?

Putting aside the mountain that all tipping points must scale – the inertia of the present model and the entrenched players who support it—I think it worthwhile to examine Ms. Araya’s examples of tipping points. 

Specific to the dissolution of the Costa Rican army: the full story behind the election of 1948, including the civil war which followed and the ultimate decision to disband the army while adding women’s suffrage and multiple social programs, is fascinating. The fact that Costa Rica was able to maintain this position, despite the all-too-frequent manipulations of the United States in Central American politics, is a testament to Ticos in general and Señor José Figueres Ferrer (Don Pepe) in particular. It is worth noting that President Figueres was so skilled in the political arts that he was later able to maintain a good relationship with the United States while he simultaneously forged arrangements to sell coffee to the USSR.

It is possible that Costa Rica’s agreement to join the Rio Treaty (Tratado Interamericano de Asistencia Recíproca) in 1947 gave confidence in secure borders without the need for a standing army. Whatever turmoil the decision caused at the time, the fact that Costa Rica has never reinstated an army or had a military regime in the nearly seventy years that have passed is praise-worthy–an oddity that is now embraced as the norm and does indeed serve as an example of a tipping point.

Shifting to energy policy: I agree with Ms. Araya that the growing number of automobiles and buses that rely almost solely on fossil fuels is the primary challenge for Costa Rica’s energy consumption. I do not, however, believe that Costa Rica’s approach to supplying power for its energy grid is a model that can be replicated across the globe, nor do I believe that we are all that close to a tipping point for non-fossil fuel powered automobiles. 

The unique geography of Costa Rica–which includes abundant rivers, a mountain range that straddles the continental divide and its corresponding winds, and substantial geo-thermic activity–is tailor fit to the mix of renewable energy sources used to power the grid. This arrangement is also aided by the fact that the population of the entire country is only roughly five million people.

Unfortunately, this success story is heavily dependent on rainfall. During droughts, when rainfall is short and reservoir levels drop, the grid once again needs fossil fuels. Moreover, the reservoirs which store the water to power the hydroelectric dams are themselves a significant source of greenhouse gases. The organic material left trapped, decomposing at the bottom of a reservoir, particularly within tropical areas, emits both methane and carbon dioxide. These emissions are in addition to the environmental impact caused when these dams are created, as well as the human impact when farms and towns full of people are displaced to make room for the reservoir.

How you feel about hydroelectric power and its various impacts is, for better or worse, how you feel about Costa Rica’s methodology to feed its grid. Regardless of whether or not you are a fan, there are very few places on earth that could attempt to replicate this arrangement. Our grid is not a tipping point.

On the automobile, trucking and mass transit fronts: Costa Rica is much like the United States and large swaths of the rest of the world — fossil fuel dominate. I do recognize that many countries, including China, have targeted the end of sales of fossil fuel burning cars. I also know that, globally,  720,000 electric cars were sold last year versus 84 million traditionally powered vehicles. 

Here in Costa Rica, where nearly all cars are imported, the import tax runs anywhere from fifty to seventy percent of the declared value of the vehicle (this is the Costa Rican government’s value of the vehicle — not what you paid for it). This creates a situation where the average Tico either drives an old, lousy car or more likely a motorcycle. Many simply rely on public transit, bicycles, or their own two feet.

The transition to alternative vehicles (horses to cars) and fuels (wood to coal) has never been abrupt. When a movement has occurred it has largely been propelled by price. This quote from urban historian Martin Melosi sums it up:

“There’s an assumption that you have this clean break between eras. In the real world, that doesn’t happen.”

At this point hybrids and e-vehicles are, generally speaking, more expensive than their traditional siblings. How long it takes you to break-even on the extra purchase cost depends largely on the price of gas or diesel in your area. In one of the largest markets, the United States, gasoline prices remain low (the lowest as of this writing is roughly $2.20 per gallon in Oklahoma; highest is $3.08 in California and Hawaii). These low prices rob demand to get the more expensive hybrids and e-cars on the road.

I can definitely foresee a future where several countries and manufacturers push ahead with their plans to eliminate traditionally powered vehicles. I can also see where the used, now de-valued traditionally powered cars in these forward-thinking countries get loaded up on giant container ships and sent to other countries where they can still fetch a pretty penny. Unless the cost of hybrid and e-options can be reduced, this means that developing countries will take on fleets of used diesel and gasoline cars. There is a reason the public bus in my small adopted town used to belong to a school district in Indiana.

Finally, there is also the challenge of recycling both traditional and lithium batteries (still very much a fledging operation in much of the world) as well as the significant environmental and human cost often involved in the mining operations which produce these batteries.

I may very well be wrong–hopefully so– but I do not foresee a tipping point for a mass migration to hybrid and e-car solutions. I think the best that can be hoped for is a gradual shift, facilitated by lower cost in the new technologies, and accompanied by better urban and mass transit planning. Adding 84 million new cars to the world each year, regardless of how they are powered, feels a lot like the millions of now empty water bottles floating around the earth.